Friday, 29 December 2017

Review: Helen Allingham

Much delayed due to Blogvent, here is my review of the current exhibition on at the Watts Gallery, 'Helen Allingham', the first major retrospective of this much overlooked artist...

Harvest Moon
Helen Allingham is one of those artists you might not know by name but you would definitely recognise her work.  Seemingly responsible for the lid of every damn tin of biscuits my grandma ever owned in the 1980s, her work could be dismissed as chocolate-box, fake cottage chitz, but that is possibly because at the most easily palatable end of the scale, those images of rose dappled cottages all stem from her work on recording rural dwellings in her own way.  However, as this beautiful, powder-palate exhibition shows, Helen Allingham was more than just cottages, and her connections to the cultural heart of Victorian society was enviable.

William Allingham (1876)
To start with, I have to admit I did not connect William Allingham, friend of Rossetti and writer of the diary that was invaluable to me as I wrote Stunner, with Helen Allingham, and actually spent about five minutes stood in the gallery going 'what, the William Allingham?!' in a puzzled tone.  Yes, they were married and her beautiful portrait of him is a mixture of the appropriate and the intimate as the learned chap reads in his tassel-y dressing gown.

A Herbaceous Border
Another thing that surprised me was Allingham's friendship with Gertrude Jekyll, and her colourful images of flowers are a result.  These not only are gorgeous images but record the gardener's experiments in planting which were revolutionary, an exuberant explosion of colour and form.

Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)
Not only are there exploding flowerbeds but also illustrations, as Allingham was the only female founding members of The Graphic and her early career is seen in the detailed black and white scenes from the serials she illustrated.  I love her Hardy illustrations, such as Far from the Madding Crowd when it appeared in the Cornhill Magazine. All novels should come with images of handsome men carking it romantically in sheds, in my opinion.

Self Portrait (1885)
Her portraits were a revelation, not only her own self portrait, but other images such as Tennyson reading, show the trust and friendship she seemed to have with her contemporaries, many of whom lived nearby her in Surrey.  However, the cottages do catch your eye and imagination mainly due to their familiarity, but what I didn't know before I went to the exhibition was the reason behind them...

Feeding the Fowls
Allingham painted the buildings in their rustic charm as a form of protest.  It was at a time when such buildings were being demolished with no thought to the history they held and so she began to record them, sometimes changing elements to show them in their original glory, undoing change where it had already, un-aesthetically, occurred.  How successful she was, and how far she perpetuated a sort of unrealistic rural idyll is a matter of opinion, but looking again at these familiar images there is much to appreciate.  Each cottage is different, each is 'lived in' in a unique way that does ring true and holds more than just attraction.  Maybe it was not just the destruction of the buildings that Allingham was protesting against but the way of life, a sort of un-industrialist perfection when man, or more often woman, and nature were as one.

Study of Flowers
There is much to see at this exhibition, which almost goes without saying as the Watts Gallery never disappoints.  Helen Allingham is a woman who needs lifting out of the cosy cottage cul-de-sac in which she has been abandoned and just this sort of retrospective does much to reignite interesting in the artist and her life.  I found her work with Jekyll to be glorious and even those cottages have an added depth I never suspected.  And she was married to William Allingham.  Yes, the William Allingham.

The exhibition is on at the Watts Gallery at Compton until 18th February and further information can be found here.


  1. Thanks Kirsty - the paintings are exquisite. I think she became very friendly with the Tennysons and even produced a book depicting his houses (a bit like a Hello magazine photographer?!) Looking forward to visiting the exhibition before it closes

  2. Imagine having the talent to protest with such beauty!


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