Monday 11 December 2023

Monday 11th December - Helen Cordelia Angell (1847-1884)

Here we are, starting the second week! My daughter breaks up from college at the end of this week and I finish work on Friday, so it's all hands to the pumps until then. I'm quite excited about today's lady as she had a fair number of contemporary accounts written about her brief life and there are some lovely images, although I must add that a fair number of them are of dead birds, but you can't have everything.  Say hello to Helen Cordelia Angell...

Chrysanthemums in a Stoneware Jug (undated)

Helen started her life as Helen Cordelia Coleman, born in 1847 to William (1800-c.1865) and Henrietta (1808-1885) in Horsham, Sussex. William was a surgeon and physician and the family was a sizeable one, boasting around a dozen children, of which Helen was the third youngest.  Her eldest brother William Stephen (1828-1904) was also an artist and has his own Wikipedia page.  As the girls of the family were obviously privately educated, it was handy having an artist brother around to deliver the art class.

A Study of Convulvulus (undated)

When Helen expressed an interest in art, legend has it that her brother gave her a sprig of flowers to copy when she was twelve, and she was so good that he recommended that she seriously study flowers from nature.  She did just that and became proficient by the age of 15 that according to English Female Artists (1876) by Ellen C Clayton, she had gained 'a local reputation which heralds a brilliant future' (not the sort of reputation that is written on a bus shelter in the market place, but wouldn't that be smashing? 'Helen Coleman is a massive flower painter' - wouldn't complementary graffiti be a lovely change?)

Minton Plate (1869)William S Coleman

Just to return to brother William for a sec, he had attempted to follow his father into medicine but found he was better at art.  He specialised in natural history paintings and woodblock prints, in which he was assisted by their sister Rebecca (1836-1882), and would go on in 1871 to open the Minton art pottery studio in Kensington, to which he sisters also contributed.

Haxel Nuts and Berries (1865)

Helen's artistic break came in 1865, at an exhibition at the Dudley Gallery in the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly. The Morning Herald mentioned her in rather glowing terms 'for a perfect gem, in its way, we might point to a trifle by Miss H Coleman. The subject is a bunch of "Hazel Nuts."' Helen remained grateful to the Dudlley Gallery for the rest of her career as they were one of the few places that a watercolour artist could exhibit and she credited them with enabling her to get works out to the public.  Her brother William may or may not have been instrumental with her inclusion as he was on the committee of management, but her talent enabled her to make the most of the opportunity when it was presented.  In that exhibition she showed a full range of her works in flower studies, fruit studies and birds.  Oh, the birds...

Kingfisher (1860s)

What is it with Victorians and dead birds? I saw this and for a split second I thought 'such vibrant colours!' then thought 'euw.' Helen wasn't the only one with a dead bird art collection, it was common practice, and obviously there were artists who also painted them alive, but quite obviously dead birds does seem to be a genre.  Is it because they keep still? Is it about the transience and beauty of life and death? Also, where did she get them from as I'm guessing Helen wasn't roaming the countryside and lurking in hedgerows in order to strangle sparrows. It is one of those Victorian things that baffles me. I do love a Kingfisher though.

Hedge Sparrow Nest and Hawthorn (1860s-70s)

I'm going to be a bit useless on dates for most if ot all of these as she did the same subject multiple times in different ways but unless a critic described the piece minutely, I'm just going to give a date range or say undated.  Helpfully, the critic at the Dudley rhapsodised about three nuts being the perfect number, so I could guess which of those it was.  Anyway, in the 1867 winter exhibition at Arthur Tooth's Fine Art Gallery (which sounds remarkably Dickensian), Helen was popular again with 'subjects peculiar to ladies, "birds-nests and wild roses," "filberts and sloes," ... rendered with marked success by Miss H C Coleman.' Likewise, the Illustrated London News in 1868 commented 'In still life there are contributions touched with extreme delicacy by Miss H C Coleman.'

Chaffinch Nest and May Blossom (c.1845) William Henry Hunt

You will probably recognise the work of William Henry Hunt, and Helen was compared to him for obvious reasons. Hunt died the year before Helen made her Dudley Gallery debut but had learned of her art and declared her his only true successor. By the end of her life, one newspaper reckoned her, 'at her best, surpassed William Hunt himself.' (John Bull, 13 Mach 1884).

As far as I can see, Helen did not bother the Royal Academy  until 1876 and then only for a couple of years, showing Wallflowers and Roses in 1876, Azaleas and Roses in 1877 and Roses and Wallflowers in 1878 (see what I mean about the same titles?).  Her main focus was the various societies that specialised in watercolour; Institute of Painters in Water Colours invited her to become a member in 1875, but she resigned her membership in 1878 and was elected an associate of the Old Water Colour Society in 1879.

Jack Wentworth Angell with a Net (1880s)

The 1870s also saw Helen's marriage to amateur artist and postmaster for the south west district of London, Thomas William Angell on 15 October 1874 at St James, Westminster. He was 20 years her senior. Their first son, John Wentworth (also known as Jack) was born 1877, quickly followed by Robert 1878, then finally Thomas in 1880.  Not letting a little thing like three births get in her way, Helen became Flower Painter in Ordinary to Queen Victoria after the death of Valentine Bartholomew in 1879. In the 1881 census, the Angell family lived at 55 Holland Road in Kensington (handy for the Design Museum).

Study of Dead Birds (undated)

All of a sudden in 1884, Helen died, aged 37 and the shock was palpable. The Liverpool Mercury called her death 'a serious loss' to the Society of Painters in Water Colour, saying 'she painted with a loving minuteness, a richness of colour, and an accurate realisation of substance and texture hardly to be surpassed.' The occasional publication mentioned her famous brother, but not as many as I feared. She was famous enough in her own right, and her watercolours were loved by the public and critics alike. She was buried at Brompton cemetery, just a month before Alexa Wilding.  I promise I'm not trying to link all of Blogvent to Alexa, it's just turning out like that.

It's taken 11 days and I've actually found a female artist who was appreciated properly in her own lifetime.  English  Female Artists (1876) by Ellen C Clayton (in two volumes) is a revelation. A little after her death in 1892, Helen got a very sizeable mention in Gilbert Richard Redgrave's A History of Water-colour Painting in England. Of course she is in Walter Shaw Sparrow's Women Painters of the World.  The Art Journal wrote in 1884 'Cruel death has snatched from us Helen Cordelia Angell, whilst in the prime of life and in the midst of work of an exceptionally delightful character.' That's not a bad note to end on.

1 comment:

  1. Hoorah! A female artist appreciated in her own lifetime! They seem to be few and far between, certainly for Victorian artists. What is it about dead birds? Yes, they don't move so it's easier to capture their colours, but I'm with you - euw! - they do show her skill though.
    I still flinched at the 'subjects peculiar to ladies...' said with a sneer, no doubt. I have dabbled with watercolours a bit and love what they do, so I can doubly appreciate her skill with them.
    Lovely to meet you, Mrs Angell.
    Best wishes


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