Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Allan, David

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ALLAN, DAVID (1744–1796), a painter of history, portrait, and Scotch character, was born at Alloa, in Stirlingshire, on 13 Feb. 1744. He was the son of the ‘shoremaster’ of that place, and was born prematurely. His mother died a few days after his birth. He showed early signs of artistic proclivities, and his dismissal from school for caricaturing his master led to his apprenticeship in 1755 to Robert Foulis, one of the celebrated printers of Glasgow, who, with his brother Andrew, had recently established an Academy of Arts in that city. Their kindness to him he was afterwards able to return when their fortunes were reversed. By the aid of the Erskines of Mar, Lord Cathcart, and other influential gentlemen in the neighbourhood of Alloa, Allan was sent to Rome with good introductions in 1764. He is probably the ‘Allen’ who, in 1771 and 1773, sent from Rome pictures of ‘Pompey’ and ‘Cleopatra,’ the ‘Prodigal Son’ and ‘Cupid and Psyche’ to the Royal Academy. At Rome Gavin Hamilton assisted him, and he gained a silver medal for drawing, and afterwards (in 1773) the gold medal of St. Luke's for the best specimen of historical composition, an honour which had also been gained by Hamilton, but by no other Scotchman. The subject of Allan's picture was ‘The Origin of Painting; or the Corinthian Maid drawing the Shadow of her Lover.’ This picture, which was praised by Wilkie and Andrew Wilson, for a long time hung on the walls of the Academy of St. Luke's at Rome, but has now disappeared. It was engraved by Cunego and others. While in Italy Allan painted the ‘Prodigal Son’ for Lord Cathcart, and ‘Hercules and Omphale’ for Sir William Erskine of Torrie, and sent, in 1775, pictures of travellers and soldiers to the Free Society; but the future direction of his talent was better indicated by four sketches of Rome during the carnival, which were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1779, engraved in aquatint by Paul Sandby, and published in 1781 with descriptions by Allan. These are said to contain several portraits of persons well known to the English who visited Rome from 1770 to 1780. They border on caricature, and, with some other sketches of Italian manners, earned for the artist the name of the Scottish Hogarth. In 1777 Allan was in London, where he remained till 1780, painting portraits for a livelihood. He then settled in Edinburgh, and on 14 June 1786 was installed director and master of the Trustees' Academy at Edinburgh, succeeding Runciman. Henceforth, with occasional attempts at historical painting—as in some scenes from the life of Mary Queen of Scots, exhibited at the last exhibition of the Society of Artists (1791)—Allan was mainly occupied on those humorous designs of Scottish character in which he shows himself a precursor of Wilkie rather than a follower of Hogarth. His ‘Scotch Wedding,’ the ‘Highland Dame,’ and the ‘Repentance Stool’ were his most successful pictures, and his popularity was much increased by his designs to Allan Ramsay's ‘Gentle Shepherd,’ which were published in 1788 by the Foulises, with a dedication to Gavin Hamilton. He also made several drawings in illustration of those songs by Robert Burns which were written for George Thomson's ‘Collection of Scottish Airs.’ The poet admired these illustrations. Thomson only published one of them, and this after Allan's death, when a print from it was presented to subscribers of Thomson's book. It is possible that the others (etched by Allan) found their way into the hands of Alexander Campbell, who published in 1798 his ‘Introduction to the History of Poetry in Scotland, to which are subjoined Songs of the Lowlands . . . with designs by David Allan.’ They are of very little merit. Allan also etched in a free style the illustrations for Tassie's ‘Catalogue of Engraved Gems.’ The frontispiece for this work, dated 1788, was also designed and etched by Allan, and he published some etched scenes of cottage life, combined with mezzotint. Allan died on 6 Aug. 1796, leaving one daughter and one son, David. In person he was not prepossessing, but his face lighted up in society, and his conversation was gay and humorous. His manners were gentle, and his honour scrupulous. His portrait by himself hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland, and there is a portrait by him of Sir William Hamilton, K.B., in the National Portrait Gallery.

[Redgrave's Dict. of Artists; Cunningham's Lives of Eminent British Painters, edited by Mrs. Charles Heaton; Edwards's Anecdotes of Painters; Stark's Biographia Scotica; the Works of Robert Burns (Bohn, 1842); Catalogue of National Portrait Gallery; George Thomson's Select Collection of Scottish Airs; Alexander Campbell's Introduction to the History of Poetry in Scotland; Allan Ramsay's Gentle Shepherd, with plates by D. A., 1788; Prints in the British Museum; Catalogues of the Free Society of Artists, the Society of Artists, and the Royal Academy.]

C. M.