Helen Mary Elizabeth Paterson was born into a strong matriarch of female artists, with her maternal grandmother, Sarah Smith Herford and her aunt, Laura Herford, both being accomplished artists of their day. Helen would go on to follow in the family’s footsteps, achieving ground-breaking success as a female artist in Victorian England.
Encouraged and taught by her grandmother, Helen showed artistic promise from an early age, going on to study at the Birmingham School of Design, before attending the Royal Academy’s National Art Training School.
Helen began her career as an illustrator, finding success is children’s books and periodicals. In 1874, she completed a twelve-illustration commission to much acclaim, for a serialisation of Thomas Hardy’s novel, ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’. Vincent Van Gogh, who was a student in Tilburg during the height of Helen’s career as an Illustrator, is known to have been influenced by her style and subjects.
After her marriage to the Irish poet William Allingham in 1874, Helen ceased her work as an Illustrator and took up watercolour painting. Deeply inspired by the bucolic surrounds of their married home in Surrey, Helen would go on to create the work that made her name as a painter and that would lead her to becoming the first woman to be admitted as a full member of the Royal Watercolour society.
Helen died in 1926, having enjoyed great success throughout her life. However, her watercolours were often dismissed as ‘idealized’ or overly sentimental, when in fact her work is exampled as a forerunner of the Post-Impressionist movement, that would sweep Western Europe throughout the late 19th century and far into the 20th. Had she been born a man, we may have readily grouped her name together with the likes of Van Gogh, Cezanne and Gaugin.
Today the Helen Allingham society, founded in 2000, is dedicated to keeping the work and legacy of this remarkable artist very much in the public consciousness.