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Significant Scots
Sir William Allan

ALLAN, SIR WILLIAM, R.A., President of the Royal Scottish Academy of Painting. This distinguished painter was born at Edinburgh, in the year 1782, and was the son of William Allan, who held the humble office of macer in the Court of Session. Notwithstanding the circumstances of his birth, he was destined, like others of the same grade in Scotland, to undergo a classical education, before his future path in life was selected. Accordingly, he was sent, while still in early boyhood, to the High School of Edinburgh, and placed under the preceptorship of Mr. William Nichol, whose memory will descend to posterity more for the "peck o’ maut," which he brewed to supply one memorable sitting where Burns was the laureate, than for all his classical attainments, respectable though they were. The future artist, however, was a poor Latin scholar, though Nichol was a stern and able teacher. In fact, the young boy already felt nature strong within him, so that he was employed in sketching the objects around him with whatever instrument came to hand, while his class-fellows were occupied with the commentaries of Caesar, or the longs and shorts of Ovid. So keen was this artistic tendency, that the forms and floor of the class-room were frequently chalked with his juvenile efforts, while their excellence invariably pointed out the offender who had thus transgressed against academic rule. Another luxury in which he indulged, was to linger near a group of boys playing at marbles; and while studying their attitudes and the expression of their countenances, he neither thought of the class hour that had elapsed, nor the punishment that awaited his remissness. After striving against the bent, Mr Nichol saw that he could not transform his pupil into a lover of Latin and Greek; but his pupil had long been of the same opinion. He felt within himself not only his natural tendency, but a vague conception of the eminence to which it would lead him; and his usual reply to paternal remonstrance was, "Father, in spite of all this spending of money in learning Latin, I will be a painter." A painter accordingly it was consented that he should be, but his noviciate in the profession was sufficiently humble: he was bound apprentice to a coach-builder in Leith Walk, to paint the armorial bearings on the panels of carriages. But Hogarth himself had a less promising commencement. William Allan, although a stripling not more than thirteen years of age, soon gave such indications of pictorial excellence, that he was employed in the delicate task of painting certain anatomical preparations at Surgeon’s Square Hall. At the commencement of his labours there, he was locked up by mistake at night in the room where he had been occupied all day, and was thus compelled to spend the hours of darkness amidst the skeletons and mangled relics of the dead. The hideous effects upon the imagination of a timid susceptible boy in such a charnel-house; the sights he saw by the glimmer of the moon through the crevices of the window-shutters, and the still more terrible phantasms which his fancy conjured up, formed such a night of horror as no artist but Fuseli could have relished. Allan himself was wont at a late stage in life, and amidst the literary circles of Edinburgh by which he was surrounded, to detail the particulars of this ghastly bivouac with a force of description and amount of merriment that never failed to set the hearers in a roar. It was making Yorick’s skull to speak anew, for the mirth of a present, as well as past generation.

The high promise of excellence which the coach-panel painting of William Allan afforded, so won upon his employer, that, through the influence of the latter, he was entered in the Trustees’ Academy, where he was a pupil for several years; and it is worthy of remark that Wilkie entered this school at the same period with Allan, sat on the same form, and copied from the same models and drawings. This circumstance, independently of their mutual enthusiasm for the art in which they were afterwards so distinguished, ripened an affection between them which no jealous rivalry could subsequently disturb. Their friendship continued unabated till the close of Wilkie’s life; and Allan was wont, while training his scholars, to refer to his illustrious fellow-pupil, as their best model and example. After he had spent several years in the lessons of the Trustees’ Academy, where he had a faithful and efficient teacher in Mr. Graham, of whose instructions he always spoke with gratitude and respect, Allan went to London, and was admitted to the school of the Royal Academy. On commencing active life, however, he soon experienced the difficulties with which the Fine Arts, as a profession, have to contend in the great metropolis of merchandise: his superiority was not appreciated with that readiness which his youthful enthusiasm had anticipated, and the demands upon his pencil were so few, as would soon have been insufficient to furnish him with the means of a mere subsistence. Like his countrymen so situated, he resolved to try the experiment elsewhere, and find, or make a home, wherever his talents could be best appreciated. The place which he selected for trial was Russia, a country still semi-barbarous, and but imperfectly known in general society, and where the Fine Arts seemed to have little chance of a cordial reception, amidst the recent, and as yet, imperfect civilization of the people. The boldness of his choice also was fully matched by scantiness of means for its execution; for he knew nothing of the Russ language, was slenderly provided with money, and had only one or two letters of introduction to some of his countrymen in St. Petersburg.

Thus inadequately equipped, the artist-adventurer threw himself into that bold career which was ultimately to lead to fame and fortune. Even the commencement was attended with a startling omen; for the ship in which he embarked for Riga was tossed about by adverse winds, and at length driven almost a wreck into Memel. Thus, contrary to his purpose, Allan found himself the temporary inhabitant of a sea-port town in Prussia, in the midst of a people to whose tongue he was a stranger, and with pecuniary resources which a few days would have exhausted. Still, however, his stout heart triumphed over the difficulty. Having settled himself at an inn, he commenced in due form the occupation of portrait painter, and had for his first sitter the Danish consul, to whom he had been introduced by the captain of the vessel that brought him to Memel. Other sitters followed; and having thus recruited his exhausted purse, he resumed his original purpose of travelling to Russia, which he did by land, passing on his way to St. Petersburg through a considerable part of the Russian army, which was at that time on its march to the fatal field of Austerlitz. At St. Petersburg, he found an effectual patron in his countryman, Sir Alexander Crichton, physician to the imperial family, to whom he was warmly recommended by Colonel Crichton, the physician’s brother, one of his early patrons in Scotland, and by Sir Alexander he was introduced to an extensive and fashionable circle of society, where his artistic talents were appreciated, and his opportunities for their improvement furthered. To accomplish that improvement, indeed, was so strongly the desire of his ardent enthusiastic mind, that neither the motives of personal comfort and safety, nor the attractive society of the Russian capital, could withhold him from a course of adventurous self-denying travel. He therefore repaired to the Ukraine, where he resided for several years, studying the wild scenery of the steppes, and the still wilder costume and manners of its inhabitants, with a fearless and observant eye. He also made occasional journeys to Turkey and Tartary, as well as to the remote dependencies of the Russian empire, dwelling in the hut of the barbarian serf, or the tent of the wandering nomade, as well as the palace of the boyar and the emir; and amidst the picturesque tribes of the east and north, with whom he thus freely fraternized, he enjoyed a daily intercourse with those whom his less adventurous brethren at home are contented to delineate from the narratives of the traveller or the waking dreams of the studio. The large collection which Allan made of the dresses, armour, weapons, and utensils of the various communities among whom he sojourned, and the life-like ease and fidelity of form, feature, and costume, by which the figures of his principal paintings are distinguished, attest how carefully and how completely he had identified himself with Russian, Turk, and Pole, with Cossack, Circassian, and Bashkir. It is much to be regretted that no journal appears to have been kept by the artist of the many stirring scenes he witnessed, and the strange adventures he underwent in this novel pilgrimage in quest of the sublime and the beautiful. That they were pregnant with interest and instruction, and worthy of a permanent record, was well evinced by the delight with which his hearers were wont to listen to his conversational narratives, when he happened—which was but rarely—to allude to the events of his travels. He appears also to have become an especial favourite with those rude children of the mountain and the desert among whom he sojourned, and whose language, dress, and manners he adopted, so that he is still remembered by the old among them as an adopted son or brother, while in Poland, the usual name by which he is distinguished is, le Raphael Ecossais—the Scottish Raphael.

After this romantic apprenticeship to his beloved profession, in which he established for himself a high reputation as a painter among foreigners, while he was still unknown at home, Allan resolved in 1812 to return to his native land, for which he had never ceased, amidst all his travels, to entertain a most affectionate longing. But the invasion of Russia by Napoleon obliged him to postpone his purpose; and, in addition to the large stock of ideas which he had already accumulated for future delineation, he was compelled to witness, and treasure up remembrances of the worst effects of war upon its grandest scale— bloodshed, conflagration, and famine maddening every human passion and feeling to the uttermost. On the restoration of peace in 1814, Allan returned to Edinburgh after a ten years’ absence, and commenced in earnest the work for which he had undergone so singular a training. His first effort, which was finished in 1815, and exhibited in Somerset House, was his well-known painting of the "Circassian Captives;" and after this, followed the "Tartar Banditti;" "Haslan Gherai crossing the Kuban;" "A Jewish Wedding in Poland;" and "Prisoners conveyed to Siberia by Cossacks." But, notwithstanding the now highly established reputation of these and other productions, which he exhibited in his native city, along with the costumes and weapons of the countries by which his paintings were illustrated, a home reputation was very hard to establish: his countrymen, with their proverbial caution, were slow to perceive the excellencies that addressed them in such an unwonted form, and refused to sympathize, at first sight, with Poles, Tartars, and Circassians. It was well, therefore, for Allan that his labours had already been prized in Russia, so that he had not been allowed to return home empty-handed. He persevered with the same boldness that had carried him onward through the encampments of the Calmucks, or the defiles of the Caucasus; and to all the remonstrances of his relations, who advised him to leave such unprofitable work and betake himself to portraits, by which he would gain both fame and money, his invariable answer was, "I will be a historical painter." His perseverance was at last rewarded. Sir Walter Scott, John Lockhart, and John Wilson, with others, who were able to appreciate the artist’s merits, combined to purchase the "Circassian Captives" at a price adequate to its value; and having done this, the individual possession of the painting was decided among them by lot, in consequence of which it became the property of the Earl of Wemyss. "Haslan Gherai," and the "Siberian Exiles," also found a munificent purchaser in the Grand Duke Nicholas, now Emperor of Russia, when he visited the Scottish capital. The tide had thus changed; and it bore him on to fortune, not only in pecuniary matters, but to what he had still more at heart— the establishment of his reputation as a Scottish painter of history. Although they are so well known, the following list of his principal productions may here be fitly introduced:—

THE SLAVE MARKET AT CONSTANTINOPLE—Purchased by Alexander Hill, Esq, and now the property of Miss Davidson of Durievale, Fife.

JOHN KNOX ADMONISHING MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS.—This is the well-known scene described by the Reformer himself, in which the beautiful queen, irritated by his bold sentiments about the limited power of sovereigns, and the liberty of their subjects, burst into tears.

THE ORPHAN, a scene at Abbotsford, in the interior of Sir Walter Scott’s breakfast-room.

THE MEETING OF DAVID DEANS WITH HIS DAUGHTER JEANNIE AT ROSENEATH. In the tale of the "Heart of Mid-Lothian," Sir Walter Scott, after describing the dress, look, and attitude of the stern old father, adds, "So happily did they assort together, that, should I ever again see my friends Wilkie or Allan, I will try to borrow or steal from them a sketch of this very scene." This was a fair challenge, which Allan gladly accepted, and the picture of the meeting at Roseneath was the result. -

THE REGENT MURRAY SHOT BY HAMILTON OF BOTHWELLHAUGH.—In this great event of Scottish history, the painter, instead of confining himself to the strict historical record, has adopted the poetical description of Sir Walter Scott in his ballad of Cadzow. This gave the artist an opportunity of introducing several personages who were not present at the scene, such as John Knox, and the Earl of Morton.


THE FAIR MAID OF PERTH. —The scene is that in the glover’s house, when Henry of the Wynd was suddenly awoke on Valentine’s morn by the bashful salute of the fair object of his affections, according to the established custom of the festival.

THE BATTLE OF PRESTONPANS.—The central and chief object in this painting is the death of Colonel Gardiner, amidst the small handful of English infantry whom he joined when his cavalry had deserted him.

THE ETTRICK SHEPHERD’S BIRTHDAY.--In this painting, the portraits of the principal friends of the artist and poet are introduced within the interior of Hogg’s house at Eltrive, after a day spent in trouting and rambling among the mountains.


A PRESS-GANG.—The terrible and heart-rending fidelity and power of this delineation have always placed it in the foremost rank of Allan’s artistic productions. A young man, the son of a fisherman, has just returned from a long voyage in a merchant ship, and been welcomed by his parents, relatives, and mistress: the triumphant feast is prepared, and the happiness of the party has reached its height, when a press-gang suddenly rushes in, and the sailor-boy is within their grasp, and about to be carried off. The agony of the parents; the fruitless attempt of the mother to bribe the leader of the gang; the stupor of the aged grandfather and grandmother, with whom this seems to be the last, as well as the most crushing affliction which a long-spent and now worn-out life could have in store for them—and saddest of all, the half-dressed maiden who has hurried to welcome her lover’s return, but only to lose him, and who has fallen into an insensibility that might be mistaken for death—compose a group of misery which art has seldom equalled, and perhaps never surpassed.

These are but a few of Allan’s many productions, which were prized by competent judges as masterpieces of historical painting, and the greater part of which have been familiarized to the public at large through the medium of engraving. His labours, however, were more than once subject to interruption from ill health; and at last, a complaint in the eyes suspended his exertions for several years, and threatened to end in total blindness. By medical advice he went to Italy; and after sojourning a winter at Rome, and spending a short time in Naples, he visited Constantinople, Asia Minor, and Greece, and returned with recruited health to his beloved studio in Edinburgh. He became once more a traveller in 1834, being desirous of visiting the romantic and historical scenery of Spain. His journey on this occasion extended into Western Barbary, and would have been still further lengthened, but for a sudden necessity of returning home, after which he continued to produce many of his best paintings. A desire also to paint the Battle of Waterloo led him several times to France and Belgium, that he might collect sufficient materials in costume, scenery, and incident, and study accurately the field of conflict. The result was a magnificent view of this great combat of nations, which, at the exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1843, was purchased by the Duke of Wellington, who testified his approbation of its truth and accuracy. Allan had now done enough for fame and fortune, both as artist and traveller; but in 1844, he again grasped his pilgrim’s staff for a journey into the far north. He visited Russia, and there produced his painting of "Peter the Great teaching his subjects the art of shipbuilding;" which, after being exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1845, was purchased by the Emperor of Russia, for the winter palace of St. Petersburg. In consequence of the success of his first painting of Waterloo, he resolved on producing a second; and, as the former was delineated as viewed from the French side of the action, the latter was from the British. Independently also of the stirring nature of the subject, his personal as well as patriotic feelings were engaged in this new effort, for it was intended for the competition of Westminster Hall in 1846. Great, however, as were its merits, it was unsuccessful. It was afterwards purchased by the Junior United Service Club in London, of whose splendid rooms it now forms a conspicuous ornament. The public honours which had already rewarded him, might indeed sufficiently console him under this disappointment; for in 1826 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, and in 1835 an Academician. Four years later, on the death of Watson, he was unanimously preferred to the office of President of the Royal Scottish Academy; and in 1842, after having been appointed her Majesty’s Limner for Scotland on the death of Wilkie, he received the honour of knighthood. He was now also the venerable father of Scottish painting, and could look around him with pleasure upon a race of promising artists whose genius his example and labours had kindled in a department which, as yet, his countrymen had almost wholly neglected.

The last professional labour in which Sir William Allan was engaged was the Battle of Bannockburn, into the difficult and complicated details of which he entered with all the inspiration and vigour of his best days. The period of action selected was the critical moment when the English, daunted by the discomfiture of their bowmen, the overthrow of their splendid cavalry among the concealed pits, and the appearance of what seemed a fresh Scottish army descending from the Gillie’s Hill, gave way on every side, and were pressed and borne down by the resistless effort of the four Scottish bodies, now united into one, with the heroic Bruce at their head. But this painting, to which he clung to the last, and touched and retouched with a dying hand, he did not live to finish. He died at his house in Great King Street, Edinburgh, on February 23, 1850. As a painter, Sir William Allan will long be gratefully remembered in the annals of Scottish art, for the impulse which he gave to historical composition. For this department he was eminently fitted; for his excellence in painting did not so much consist in character and colour, as in his admirable power in telling a story and his general skill in composition, by which each of his productions is a striking poetical narrative. Sir Walter Scott, a congenial spirit, who highly prized and affectionately loved him, was wont to speak of him under the familiar endearing name of "Willie Allan."

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