A characteristic example of Helen Allingham's ever-popular watercolours of cottages, whether they were found in Surrey, Berkshire, Kent, Middlesex or the Isle of Wight. She and her husband, the poet William Allingham, moved to the hamlet of Sandhills, just outside Haslemere, in 1881, following the death of Thomas Carlyle, their friend and neighbour in Chelsea, that February. The area provided her with abundant subject matter, and her cottage scenes were particularly in demand. In 1886 an exhibition of them, entitled Surrey Cottages, was held at the Fine Art Society, and another, In the Country, followed in 1887. Both were sell-outs.
It is often said that Allingham paints an idealised picture of country life, that these cottages cannot always have been embowered in lupins and clematis, or inhabited by sweet-faced girls with nothing to do all day but play with the kitten or admire the latest brood of chicks. It is true that the reality was often much harsher and less picturesque, but Allingham's paintings, though undoubtedly idealised, were not merely escapist. They have an underlying seriousness of purpose in that she was attempting to record a way of life and a type of vernacular architecture that were disappearing even as she painted. As William Allingham wrote in the catalogue of her 1886 exhibition, 'in the short time, to be counted by months, since these drawings were made, no few of the Surrey cottages which they represent have been thoroughly "done up", and some of them swept away'. Seen in this light, Allingham's cottage paintings may be seen as part of the current movement to protect the countryside and the architectural heritage, a movement epitomised by the foundation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877 and of the National Trust in 1895. Many of those most closely involved with these developments, including Ruskin, William Morris, Tennyson, Carlyle, Octavia Hill and Gertrude Jekyll, were either known personally to Helen Allingham or belonged to her extended circle.
We are grateful to Annabel Watts for contributing the following note on the present drawing:
In the early 1900s Allingham started to paint subjects in the Berkshire countryside, particularly around East Hagbourne. There she stayed in lodgings run by Mrs Dixon, the matriarch of a farming family known to Robert Anning Bell and his wife, who lived in the village. A watercolour of cottages at East Hagbourne is illustrated in Ina Taylor, Helen Allingham's England, Exeter, 1990, p.78, and formed part of the Marley Collection of Allingham watercolours that was sold in these Rooms, 19 September 1991, lot 47.
A short walk beyond East Hagbourne church lies West Hagbourne, a quiet hamlet of thatched buildings, a couple of which were to become the subjects of watercolours. Both the cottage shown in our watercolour and the one next to it caught the artist's eye. A watercolour of the other cottage and a photograph of both buildings, taken in the 1930s, are illustrated in Annabel Watts, Helen Allingham's Cottage Homes Revisited, 2002, p.13.
The fact that the present watercolour was painted in the early 1900s but not exhibited until 1913 need not surprise us. Allingham would often paint a cottage on site and finish the picture by adding the background and other details at a later date. The 17th Century cottage depicted in the present watercolour was demolished just prior to the Second World War.