Posts Tagged ‘women’s art’

Beside the Old Church Gate Farm, Smarden, Kent

Coming Events — a hand holds out a knife to the back …


Dear friends and readers,

As for this brief survey of the life and art of Helen Allingham (she excelled in watercolor, oil, illustration, drawing) is (unlike the previous woman artists I’ve covered), I’ve too many pictures to share, I start with a characteristic one, women at work, where line and color and stance make for a sense of vital life; Coming Events, her alert capturing of everyday life; and Torcello, her paintings from Italy, unhappily not well-known. (If you click on some of the images, they enlarge beautifully. Just try.)

Helen Allingham may be distinguished from the seven women artists not because she made a lot of money or was successful (several of them were), but because of the seven I’ve covered thus far, Allingham is the only one not included in any of my basic surveys, though mentioned once by Germaine Greer as a type of “the wrong women singled out for praise” (p. 87) by her contemporaries and “the masculine establishment.” Not much by the latter as she’s singularly absent from most surveys (those dubbed general when they are mostly by and about men), except those specializing in Victorian/Edwardian genre (e.g., Christopher Wood). She is apparently sometimes likened to Fred Walker who painted and drew socially realistic pictures, but I suggest her vein is much richer, more varied, women-centered (a visual equivalent of l’écriture-femme).

Justice is done to Allingham by Deborah Cherry, in her full, informative, insightful Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists (8 straight pages and many single and double-page entries); a concise, reproduction-laden informative study by Ina Taylor, Helen Allingham’s England: An Idyllic View of Rural Life (Devon: Webb and Brower, 1990) more than compensates. The pictures are what matter.

There is only one known self-depiction (and I’ve not got a good copy, so Borzello ignoring Helen in her Seeing Ourselves has some justification), but she painted others:

Thomas Carlyle, a close friend to her husband

Willam Allingham



and his favorite dog:


Then there are the riots of delicate watercolor:

Tig Bridge

Chase Cottage Ponds

She loved blue:

Girls on a Beach

Purple Bluebells

Cow Parsley

There is much that is not idyllic:

Digging Potatoes

The Governess and the Ayah on the beach — most of Allingham’s women are embedded among children

Or with farm animals, domestic pets (here cats), standing among ruins or by buildings they never choose:

Venetian Fruit Stall —

Another — we have the stains on the buildings, the fruits and vegetables real, how wretched she looks

She was a popular illustrator.

for her husband’s play, Ashby Manor (never produced)

and another of her brother, Henry Paterson, who died at 39 in an aslyum


Famously, she illustrated Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (includes detailed discussions of some of the illustrations), and Hardy, then very unhappy with his wife, appears to have found in her a kindred soul. In 1874, He, she and Annie Thackeray dined together (1874) and he wrote this poem 40 years later on what he dreamed they might have known in marriage:

The Opportunity (For H.P)

Forty Springs back, I recall,
We met at this phase of the Maytime:
We might have clung close through all,
But we parted when died that daytime.

We parted with smallest regret;
Perhaps should have cared but slightly,
Just then, if we never met:
Strange, strange that we lived so lightly!

Had we mused a little space
At that critical date in the Maytime,
One life had been ours, one place,
Perhaps, till our long cold daytime.

— This is a better thing For thee,
O man! what ails it?
The tide of chance may bring Its offer;
but nought avails it!

The line “strange, strange that we live so lightly” deeply suggestive about the nature of life

Helen Allingham, in her later years, widowed

There are many online biographies, from art galleries, to an official society website

What to say in brief? She was born into a comfortable middle-class family, her father a physician, and a mother with talent for art (shelved to provide a dowry for her husband to start his practice, to have 7 children), but part of the Unitarian dissenting world (so her father had hard times building a practice), with an aunt, Laura Hertford, a successful professional painter whom she emulated. Her father died relatively young (diphtheria , a harrowing time), and Helen experienced the necessity of making money. Her talent was cultivated: her Paterson aunts sent her to the Birmingham School of Design (studying drawing, painting, perspective, practical geometry, costume, and art-teaching).

By age 18 she is living in London, with a place at the Royal Female School of Art (learning anatomy), and supporting herself by jobs as an engraver, illustrator for Once a Week (among other magazines) where she learned to produce quickly:

Pencil Sketch for a woodcut

A transformative event was her meeting with William Allingham (1874), originally from Ireland, had worked for Irish Customs and Excise for 20 years (he was 24 years older), wrote poetry and journalism, friends with Leigh Hunt, Tennyson, Browning, the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood; he especially venerated Carlyle; they may have met at the theater and when he was hired as editor of Fraser’s (for 400£ a year), they married (1874). She worked at her career (remained convinced he had the superior talent, just not recognized), had children:

Her daughter, Margaret

They went to Margate and Surrey for holidays, but when Carlyle died, they moved to Surrey for a country life, of work for her — she loved to go and paint the seaside:

the Allinghams’ Surrey home

A Seaside study

At the shore

1889 they lived in London some of the time, and had set up another home in Hampstead, with new and old friends (next to the Martineaus), more memberships in art societies, before he died in 1889. She was a widow for 37 years, filling her life with intense activity. She had to support her household, but she also returned to her husband’s home in Ireland (acting out what she conceived was her husband’s desire he never got to do) where she painted dozens of watercolors for once capturing the poverty and bleakness of what she saw in the houses themselves.

Ballyshannon, 1891

These years see her moving into more large landscapes

Hindhead, Surrey

She traveled to Venice in 1901 and 1902 as part of attempts to break away from her usual subjects. Later in life she moved into landscape painting.

A study of Aire, St Maclou, in Rouen, done on the way to Venice — brilliance of line design, perspectives

A different color palette for Italy — gorgeous marble, cascading flowers, notice the woman and child with basketed flowers — are they transferring these to a husband/father to use with his customers or selling them or is that another woman selling flowers?

Hers was not a life of tragedy, but hard work, in a changing world; she was on the side of preservation, and there seems no doubt that her exclusion of the ubiquitious abysmal poverty and miseries of the era did not allow her work to be part of needed economic, social, political reform. She had a close friendship with Gertrude Jekyll (a career in photography, studying vernacular buildings and celebrating crafts), and Kate Greenaway, and after 1890 enabled one another (by going together) to paint more subjects, in more places, though her times painting alongside Greenaway didn’t last (their work was to unalike):

‘it was in the spring of 1888 that we went out painting together in the copses near Witley and became really friends …. One day in the autumn of 1889 [when they were neighbours in Hampstead] we went to Pinner [where from the cancelled manuscript of Persuasion we know Jane Austen meant Anne Elliot] together on an exploring expedition for subjects and were delighted with some of the old cottages we saw there. I had been pressing her ever since our spring time together at Witley to share with me some of the joys of painting out of doors. Another day we went farther afield – to Chesham and Amersham . . . . In the spring of 1890 I took my children to Freshwater, Isle of Wight and found ms for us near Kate. She and I went out painting together daily, either to some of the pretty old thatched cottages around Farringford or to the old dairy in the grounds …. During the summer of that year (1890) we continued our outdoor work together, generally taking an early train from Finchley Road to Pinner, for the day. She was always scrupulously thoughtful for the convenience and feelings of the owners of the farm or cottage we wished to paint, with the consequence that we were made welcome to sit in the garden or orchard where others were refused admittance.
Though we often sat side by side, painting the same object (generally silently – for she was a very earnest, hard worker – and perhaps I was, too), it seemed to me that there was little likeness between our drawings — specially after the completion in the studio. But she was one of the most sensitive of creatures and I think she felt it might be wiser for both of us to discontinue the practice of working from the same subjects …. (Cherry, p 177)

So what is this world of women in rural and eastern England:

An earlier picture: a version of her cradling her son, Henry


Women also hung out the wash in Verona

This is a woman gathering sticks and wood for the fire for winter

A dreaming young girl

Worn old woman

Valleywood Farm — lost in the middle distance

Buildings inside and out:

The Interior of Cheyne House (Carlyle’s)

Stanfield House, Hampstead — stodgy and respectable

Aldworth — covered in flowery ivy, this mansion of the wealthy

A fantasia of St Mark’s Cathedal, Venice, or as pastoral, Santa Maria:


More typically:


A big and old tree: Old Beech Tree

She loved gardening and has many still lifes of flowers and gardens, hills and meadows:


Blackdown, Sussex (I use this as my computer wallpaper)


Allingham’s best known book is The Cottage Homes of England; she saw herself as recording a vanishing way of life, and Christopher Wood suggests we should see her art as the visual equivalent of Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford. Deborah Cherry argues that Helen Allingham’s pictures present female sexuality centrally in discreet (coded) ways, and were an influence for good from the respect they showed for women’s ordering, work, and past places and ties too.

I’ll end on a poem by Amy Clampitt, which while intended to characterize “George Eliot Country” and written for Eliot’s first magisterial biographer, Gordon Haight (1901-1985) seems to me to capture the same world as Allingham:

From this Midland scene – glum slagheaps,
barge canals, gray sheep, the vivid overlap
of wheatfield and mustard hillside like
out-of-season sunshine, the crabbed silhouette
of oak trees (each joint a knot, each knot
a principled demurral – tough, arthritic, stubborn
as the character of her own father) – fame,
the accretion of a Pyrrhic happiness, had
exiled her to London, with its carriages
and calling cards, its screaming headaches.

Griff House – dear old Griff, she wistfuly
apostrophized it – in those days still intact,
its secrets kept, has now been grafted to a
motel-cum-parking-lot beside the trunk road,
whose raw, ungainly seam of noise cuts through
the rainy solace of Griff Lane: birdsong,
coal smoke, the silvered powderings of
blackthorn, a flowering cherry tree’s
chaste flare; the sludge-born, apoplectic
screech of jet aircraft tilting overhead.

The unmapped sources that still fed nostalgia
for a rural childhood survive the witherings
of retrospect: the look of brickyards,
stench of silk mills, scar of coal mines,

the knife of class distinction: wall-enclosed,
parkland-embosomed, green-lawned Arbury Hall,
fan-vaulting’s stately fakeries, the jewel-
stomachered, authentic shock of Mary Fitton and
her ilk portrayed, the view of fishponds – school
and role model of landed-proprietary England.

Born in the year of Peterloo, George Eliot
had no illusions as to the expense of such
emoluments. Good society (she wrote) floated
on gossamer wings of light irony, required no less
than an entire, arduous national existence,
condensed into unfragrant, deafening factories,
cramped into mines, sweating at furnaces, or
scattered in lonely houses on the clayey or chalky
cornland… where Maggie Tulliver, despairing
of gentility, ran off to join the gypsies.

Violets still bloom beside the square-towered
parish church where Mary Anne was christened;
the gnashed nave of Coventry fills up with rain
(another howling doodlebug of fright hurls itself
over); the church from which, refusing to commit
the fiction of a lost belief in One True Body,
she stayed away, upholds the fabric in which her
fictions, perdurable now, cohere like fact: Lydgate
still broods, Grandcourt still threatens, and
in Mrs Transome disappointment turns to stone.

One last connection, back to Charlotte Smith with Near Beachy Head:


Allingham’s is a world of women at work, women surrounded by children, and their work. She seeks them out, she records them and celebrates their creations, adds to these:

A Side Canal in Venice (notice the woman high up behind the arch banging out the wet or dirt from a pink cloth of some type

Mrs Eden’s Garden, Venice


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Ethel Reed: an art photograph by her friend, another woman artist from the turn of the century Francis Benjamin Johnson

Ethel Reed: “In the studio” (girl child with cat)

Dear Friends and readers,

This past Thursday I managed to attend a meeting in the Library of Congress on Book History (thus Sharpe people) where Washington Area Print group people were in attendance too. We listened to Bill Peterson’s talk on Ethel Reed: he’s written a book in which he ends the mystery of what happened to Ethel Reed after she supposedly disappeared from the US in 1896 and is said to have “never been seen” or “heard of again:” The Beautiful Poster Lady: a life of Ethel Reed.

This new biographer has found out what happened to her after she supposedly disappeared. Although a witty stylist himself, I feel that he does not tell her life in an appropriate way.

Portraits in Miniature, Introd. Edward Penfield (New York: Russell & Son, 1896).

Typical for covers/posters by her: a glamorous sexy woman surrounded by flowers & musical instruments, dressed in ways which are a sexualized extension of her own (and sometimes a male) body

Peterson began by telling us of how it has been said how after achieving stunning artistic and commercial success as an artist and socialite in Boston, Ethel Reed “vanished in the fog” in the later 1890s, that she was famous as a “beauty” first through her glamorous photos. Her letters show she suffered from depression, had sleep problems all her life, and towards the end are suffused with a suicidal tone. They exist in groups in microfilm and in American Art Archives in DC. Mr Peterson said his aim was to show how how she played an active role in creating this story of herself, in other words his point was the fashionable one today of showing her life as a performance.


Here is a sketch of her life as told by Peterson in his lecture:

Ethel Reed was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts. She grew up in “alarming poverty,” her father dying of TB in her adolescence. They lived in a boarding house near a cotton factory. While in school, her talent for drawing was noticed — and she was too – and Laura Hills, a Newbery artist became Ethel’s mentor and promoter. From early in her career a drawing by her of a pageant she participated in:

Ethel Reed as the the consort of King René of Anjou in an amateur theatrical pageant; King René was played by Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue (from Boston Daily Globe, 1 April 1893)

Earliest posters by her as a young adult appeared in the Boston Sunday Herald: one of herself reading a newspaper with poppies about her is well known. The Copeland & Day publishing house printed her images.

Another typical image by her in the 1890s

As she worked she began to do more interesting pictures: “strange, edgy images,” often including herself partly naked. A rising architect, Ralph Adams Cram wrote a poem to her, “Night Moth,” a passionate poem about a moth who makes nightly visits to poppies. It played on what had become thought about her in Boston: she was a woman who made herself “sexually available” is the way Mr Peterson put it.

Philip Hale, a young man from “a Brahmin rich family, became her lover and they were engaged.” The family broke it off. This was to become the pattern of her life. It was around this time (18986) that “she sailed for France with her mother and by the end of the year was living in London.”

In London she did a series of illustrations for a children’s book by Louisa Chandler Moulton who was so “horrified by [the illustrations] she never spoke to Reed again.”


They included pictures of children with “brutally chopped hair looking like The Scream by Munch,” pictures of thin young girls naked to the waist, but Reed was also influenced in this series by Aubrey Beardsley and his imitators in the Yellow Book.

Less well-known poster by her: Pierrot religieux

Through her Beardsley connections, she met Richard LeGallienne; she illustrated the cover for his Golden Girl

Mark Samuel Lasner collection

and they proceeded to have “a tempestuous relationship;” we have some oblique records of a love affair; LeGallienne though was married. Ethel’s first child born around that time seems to have been his too.

At some point LeGallienne had abandoned Ethel, and by 1897 she was living with her mother in county Cork (southwest Ireland), where LeGallienne may have visited her. When she is located with her mother as her companion in Ireland, she is taking opium as a sedative to sleep.

A third rich lover appears: Alexander Arnold Hannay, also wealthy, a gambling addict, English, friend of Whistler. Again she is “pregnant,” and again “abandoned. He returned to his wife.”

Then in 1903 she married Arthur Warrick (?): a document exists to show this. He too was wealthy and English; “the marriage broke up after the honeymoon.” By this time she had two children and he begins to pay her “a small stipend. She brought suit for a restoration of conjugal rights.”

In 1909 she is “living in a boarding house with her son and daughter and sustained by her landlady.” She was “alcoholic by this time, a drug addict and she died of an overdose.”

She did keep in touch with Francis Johnson and “it’s known that Johnson visited Reed in Ireland.”


Mr Peterson told this story in a light slightly ironic tone. He has a blog where he reprints quite a number of Reed’s illustrations, many of which are coy, women presented as kittenish. The use of young girls suggests she was appealing to male prurient taste, pederasty perhaps. (Some of the above pictures come from there, others from what is readily available on the Net.)

For my part I found the way he told the story inappropriate; he simply repeated the kind of language used of her in the public media at the time so we cannot separate out her real motives in her various affairs; what was her position with these men; was she someone who yielded herself for lack of self-esteem, desperately. I would liked to know much more about her friendship with Francis Johnson, her children’s later lives.

A stance that emphasized the probable driven exploitation and tragedy of this life would been truer to her whole experience. He did say her early impoverished life was probably responsible for her secretiveness: she herself wanted to hide herself and her background. I’d say that like earlier actresses (see my reviews of Sandra Richards (Rise of English Actress); Kristin Pullen (Actresses and Whores); Felicity Nussbaum (Rival Queens), she was led in effect to sell herself sexually (like a prostitute); this, together with her early impoverished background, lack of connections made her unacceptable to the glamorous social world she needed to be part of to sustain her career. Faced with an obdurate closed world, she retreated to Ireland where she was less exposed, and costs were lower. Was this a performance?

I don’t say he needed to be overtly feminist but this way of telling, including the Butlerian idea of performance as central to all lives, erases all the ways of seeing women’s lives that feminists have given us to enable us to make clear the inadequacy of the glamorous girl who didn’t manage to “make” it approach. Basically the Butlerian point of view when just about performance (minus all she has to say about gender) supports the established quo.

I find this photograph interesting for the expression on her face:

A photo by Johnson of Ethel in a cape

Her lines for covers are intriguing; this is an 1897 Vision for the Yellow Book where all her ways of making drawings are brought together

She did know and worked for interesting artists: Lily Lewis Rood, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes: A Sketch (Boston: L. Prang & Co., 1895).


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