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  • The Cottage Paradise1
  • Pamela Gerrish Nunn (bio)

In 1903, there appeared under the title Happy England a book concerned with the career of watercolourist Helen Allingham, who had been described in 1886 as "the poet of the cottage home" (Monkhouse). The author, Marcus Huish, explained that the book's title was suggested by Allingham's audience, presumed to be urban workers or emigrants longing for a lost rural England:

What does the worker, long in city pent, desire when he cries "Tis very sweet to look into the fair and open face of heaven"? And what does the banished Englishman oftenest turn his thoughts to, even although he may be dwelling under aspects of nature which many would think far more beautiful than those of his native land? Browning gives consummate expression to the homesickness of many an exile: "Oh! to be in England / Now that April's there! / All will be gay when noontide wakes anew / The Buttercups, the little children's dower, / Far brighter than this gaudy melon flower!" and Keats also—"Happy is England! I could be content / To see no other verdure than its own, / To feel no other breezes than are blown / Through its tall woods, with high romances blent." These, the poets' longings, suggested the prefix for which so long an apology has been made, and which in spite of the artist's demur, we have pressed upon her acceptance.


Six years later, The Cottage Homes of England (1909), another publication based on Allingham's drawings, pressed the rural cottage as a central image in her hugely popular work. This article will address why Allingham and her turn-of-the-century cottage scenes (Figs. 1-3) were so successful by examining the discourse of the cottage as a leitmotif of both English and colonial life and the talismanic properties of the cottage in Victorian culture, in both England and the colonies.

John Ruskin may have set the tone for Allingham's achievement when he praised her in his 1884 Slade lectures, under the banner "The Art of England" (Cook and Wedderburn 33, 327-49). Her achievement was no doubt also buttressed by Ruskin's association (through Pre-Raphaelitism) with the tenet of truthful observation of nature. This allowed Allingham's work a claim of authenticity and ethical authority, even as its appeal was acknowledged as rooted in sentiment. As Huish later elaborated, Allingham offered imagery that appealed [End Page 185]

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Fig. 1.

A Dorset Cottage by Helen Allingham. Accession number: 69/386. By permission of the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu.

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Fig. 2.

At Whittington, Gloucester by Helen Allingham. Accession number: 2008/047. By permission of the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu.

[End Page 186]

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Fig. 3.

Tudor cottage, Chiddingstone, Kent by Helen Allingham. Accession number: 2008/046. By permission of the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu.

to English viewers, many of whom were provoked to seek an emblem of home either by industrialization or the pain of homesickness. Both urban and colonial audiences were well established by his time of writing. The disruptive effects of industrialization on the environment were well acknowledged in the public consciousness by the 1820s, and emigrants from England to countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand peaked at over 2.5 million in the decade between 1845 and 1854, only to rise further in the 1880s. From the 1830s on, painters exhibited emigration scenes whose pathos was rooted in the notion that the protagonists were leaving for unknown shores the cottage home where (as far as the viewer could tell) they had led a blameless and Edenic life, supported by neighbours and friends (Casteras; Nunn; MacDonald). While the cottage was not, of course, specific to England—there were Welsh, Irish, and Scottish variants—artists and writers of the Victorian period proposed it as deeply essential to Englishness. [End Page 187]

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Fig. 4.

"Here and there or, Emigration a remedy" by John Leech. Punch 15 (1848): 27. By permission of Punch...


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