The line between "hovel" and "picturesque, ancient cottage" is a subtle one - or at least it was a century ago when the Victorian painter Helen Allingham memorably painted English cottages.
Allingham must have been aware of this dichotomy. At her best, as in this painting of an old farm cottage on an estate once owned by the poet Tennyson, her affectionate detailing of every brick, beam, and tile of these appealing vernacular structures is tempered by an unavoidable realism. An esteemed member of the Royal Watercolor Society, she was noted for her sympathetic, not sentimental, depictions of English country life.
In fact, Allingham's celebration of the charm of laborers' cottages also was a form of historical documentation. These homes were on the modernizers' hit list. One of her early biographers, Marcus B. Huish, strongly regretted (in 1903) the destruction of such cottages by landlords determined to improve or replace them. He argued they had survived for centuries and needed only upkeep.
We can only guess what Allingham's characteristic "staffage" (small figures added to the scene) thought. These mothers and pinafored children always seem to pose delightfully, even if their homes were undoubtedly cramped and damp. The artist also liked to include lines of washing that indicate both the pride in cleanliness and the domestic drudgery of the women.
Allingham's keen observation - and she painted on the spot - extended to the woods, hedges, and meadows in which the cottages stood. She was an accurate painter of garden flowers, but in this particular picture (recently auctioned for a handsome price at Bonhams in London), it is the yellow ragwort in the foreground that she clearly relishes. In English poet John Clare's paean to this common plant, he wrote, "I love to see thee come and litter gold," but the weed was avoided by grazing animals and thus hated by farmers. This, again, may well have had a double meaning in the painting. Things may not always be as enchanting as they look.