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Significant Scots
David Allan


ALLAN, DAVID, a painter of great merit, was born at Alloa, February l3th, 1744. He was the son of Mr David Allan, shore-master at that small port. The mother of Allan, whose maiden name was Gullan, brought him prematurely into the world, and died a few days after his birth. The young painter had so small a mouth that no nurse could be found in the place fitted to give him suck; at length, one being herd of who lived at the distance of some miles, he was packed up in a basket amidst cotton, and sent off under the charge of a man who carried him on horseback, the journey being rendered additionally dangerous by a deep snow. The horse happened to stumble, the man fell off, and the tiny wretch was ejected from the basket into the snow, receiving as he fell a severe cut upon his head. Such were the circumstances under which Mr David Allan commenced the business of existence.

Even after having experienced the tender cares of his nurse, misfortune continued to harass him. In the autumn of 1745, when he must have been about eighteen months old, a battery was erected at Alloa, to defend the passage of the Forth against the attempts of Prince Charles's army. While the men were firing the cannon for experiment, the maid entrusted with the charge of young Allan ran across the open space in front, at the moment when they were discharged, and he only escaped death by a hair-breadth.

His genius for designing was first developed by accident. Being confined at home with a burnt foot, his father one day said to him, "You idle little rogue, you are kept from school doing nothing! come, here is a bit of chalk, draw something with it upon the floor." He took the chalk, and began to delineate figures of houses, animals, and other familiar objects; in all of which he succeeded so well that the chalk was seldom afterwards out of his hand. When he was about ten years of age, his pedagogue happened to exercise his authority over some of the boys in a rather ludicrous manner: Allan immediately drew a caricature of the transaction upon a slate, and handed it about for the amusement of his companions. The master of the ferule, an old vain conceited person, who used to strut about the school dressed in a tartan night-cap and long tartan gown, got hold of the picture, and right soon detected that he himself was the most conspicuous and the most ridiculous figure. The satire was so keen, and the laugh which it excited sunk so deep, that the object of it was not satisfied till he had made a complaint to old Allan, and had the boy taken from his school. When questioned by his father how he had the effrontery to insult his master, by representing him so ridiculously on his slate, his answer was, "I only made it like him, and it was all for fun!"

The father observed the decided genius of his son, and had the good sense to offer it no resistance. At this time, the establishment of the Messrs Foulis' academy of Arts at Glasgow was making some noise in the country. Allan, therefore, resolved to apprentice his son to those gentlemen upon the terms given out in their prospectus of the institution. On the 25th of February, 1755, when exactly eleven years of age, the young draughtsman was bound apprentice to the Messrs Foulis for seven years, to attend their painting academy in the university of Glasgow. In Newhall house there is a sketch in oil, done by him, representing the inside of the academy, with an exact portrait of Robert Foulis in the act of criticising a large picture, and giving instructions to his principal painter about it.

In the year 1764, some of his performances attracted the notice of lord Cathcart, whose seat, Shaw Park, was situated in Clackmannanshire near Alloa. Lady Cathcart introduced him to the notice of lady Frances Erskine, daughter of the insurgent earl of Mar, and mother of the gentleman to whom the peerage was restored in 1824; as also to lady Charlotte Erskine, to Mrs Abercromby of Tullibody, mother of Sir Ralph, and to some other personages of distinction in the neighbourhood of his birth-place. By the associated purses of these kind patrons, Allan was enabled to go to Italy, where he studied with unremitting application for eleven years. During his residence there, lady Cathcart used to write to him with all the care and affection of a mother. In 1773, while living at Rome, he gained the prize medal given by the academy of St Luke for the best specimen of historical composition; being the only Scotchman who had ever reached that honour, besides Mr Gavin Hamilton.

After his return in 1777, Allan resided for about two years in London; but, falling into a bad state of health, he was ordered home to Scotland for a change of air. Soon after his arrival in Edinburgh, he was appointed successor to Runciman (deceased), as master and director of the academy established by the Board of Trustees for Manufactures and Improvements, for the purpose of diffusing a knowledge of the principles of the fine arts and elegance of design, in the various manufactures and works which required to be figured and ornamented; a charge for which he was peculiarly well qualified, by the extensive knowledge he possessed of every branch of the art. He retained the situation till his death.

Allan was much admired for his talents in composition, the truth with which he delineated nature, and the characteristic humour which distinguished his pictures, drawings, and etchings. There are several engravings from his pictures, as, "The Origin of Painting, or the Corinthian maid drawing the shadow of her lover," and four in aqua-tinta by Paul Sandby, from drawings made by Allan when at Rome, representing the sports during the carnival. Several of the figures were portraits of persons well known to the English who visited Rome between 1770 and 1780. There is one caricature by Allan, which is well known to Scottish collectors: it represents the interior of a church or meeting-house at Dunfermline, at the moment when an imprudent couple are rebuked by the clergyman. There is a drollery about the whole of this performance that never fails to amuse. The alliance of his genius to that of our national poets, led Allan, in 1788, to publish an edition of the Gentle Shepherd, with characteristic drawings. He also published a collection of the most humorous of the old Scottish songs, each illustrated by a characteristic etching. At his death, which happened on the 6th of August, 1796, he left a series of drawings designed for the poems of Burns, in an equally graphic and humorous style. There is one property which runs through all the designs of Allan, and by which his productions may be distinguished at the most casual glance: this is a peculiar elegance of form which he always gives to the limbs of his figures - elegance to such a degree, that, in many cases, it may be pronounced out of nature.

Allan, by his wife, whom he married in 1788, left one son, bearing his own name, and who was sent out as a cadet to India, and one daughter named Barbara. In person, our Scottish Hogarth, as he was called, had nothing attractive. The misfortunes attending his entrance into the world were such as nothing in after life could repair. "His figure was a bad resemblance of his humorous precursor of the English metropolis. He was under the middle size; of a slender, feeble make; with a long, sharp, lean, white, coarse face, much pitted by the small-pox, and fair hair. His large prominent eyes, of a light colour, were weak, near-sighted, and not very animated. His nose was long and high, his mouth wide, and both ill-shaped. His whole exterior to strangers appeared unengaging, trifling, and mean; and his deportment was timid and obsequious. The prejudices naturally excited by these disadvantages at introduction, were, however, dispelled on acquaintance; and, as he became easy and pleased, gradually yielded to agreeable sensations; till they insensibly vanished, and at last, were not only overlooked, but, from the effect of contrast, even heightened the attractions by which they were so unexpectedly followed. When in company he esteemed, and which suited his taste, as restraint wore off, his eye imperceptibly became active, bright, and penetrating; his manner and address quick, lively, and interesting - always kind, polite, and respectful; his conversation open and gay, humorous without satire, and playfully replete with benevolence, observation, and anecdote." - Brown's edition of the Gentle Shepherd, 1808.

The author who thus forcibly delineates his external appearance, gives the following character of his genius. "As a painter, at least in his own country, he neither excelled in drawing, composition, colouring, nor effect. Like Hogarth, too, beauty, grace, and grandeur, of individual outline and form, or of style, constitute no part of his merit. He was no Corregio, Raphael, or Michael Angelo. He painted portraits as well as Hogarth, below the middle size; but they are void of all charms of elegance, and of the claro-obscuro, and are recommended by nothing but a strong homely resemblance. As an artist and a man of genius, his characteristic talent lay in expression, in the imitation of nature with truth and humour, especially in the representation of ludicrous scenes in low life. His eye was ever on the watch for every eccentric figure, every motley group, or ridiculous incident, out of which his pencil or his needle could draw innocent entertainment and mirth."


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