David Allan (1744-1796).

David Allan (1744-1796) was born in the busy port of Alloa on the river Forth where his father, also David, was the Shoremaster in charge of the harbour. Like John Kay, David had a rather unfortunate childhood; he was born prematurely and his mother died shortly after his birth and like Kay he survived two accidents in his early years which threatened his life.  He displayed an early talent for drawing which led to his expulsion from the parish school when he drew a caricature of the dominie in the act of caning unruly pupils. 

David Allan self portrait (1770)(Scottish National Portrait Gallery)

In 1753, Robert Foulis, a publisher in Glasgow, founded the Academy of Art and Design which was granted a room in Glasgow University.  The Academy was essentially a charitable institution supported by local wealthy merchants with encouragement from the aristocracy including the Duke of Argyle and Lord Cathcart.  In 1755, two years after its foundation it had only ten pupils who paid 1½ guineas a session.   In that year David Allan entered the Academy at the age of eleven as an apprentice bound to Robert Foulis for a period of seven years. He was supported no doubt by Lord Cathcart whose estate, Schawpark, was adjacent to Alloa.  Lord and Lady Cathcart became aware of Allan’s artistic ability at an early age and gave him encouragement and financial support throughout their lives.

The Academy enjoyed only a brief existence until 1775 when financial difficulties led to its closure but during its short life it fostered a number of young students who rose to eminence including David Allan and his close friend and contemporary James Tassie. [1]  Allan completed his apprenticeship and continued to study at the Academy for a further two years becoming a master of the skills of engraving and etching. 

To complete his education, it was felt that Allan should attend one of the continental schools.  With the assistance of the Cathcart family and the Erskines, another neighbouring aristocrat family, Allan at the age of twenty in 1764 proceeded to Rome where he enrolled in St Luke’s Academy.  There he came under the influence of Gavin Hamilton (1723-1798) a Scottish painter of classical events and art dealer.  Under Hamilton’s guidance, Allan acquired a reputation for his historical paintings and won a prestigious prize in the Concorso Balestra  – the only British painter to do so.

Portrait of Gavin Hamilton (1723-1798) by Skirving (SNPG). Hamilton was Allan’s mentor while in Rome

During his time in Rome Allan inevitably came in contact with the exiled Stuart royal family who at that time were given accommodation in Rome by Papal charity. This relationship is discussed more fully in the chapter on The Mystery of the Artists. It is possible that Allan may have incorporated some images dating from his Roman experience into the Parliament Square painting.

On his return to Britain in 1777, after thirteen years on the Continent, he settled first in London which he did not enjoy and failed to prosper.  In 1780 he came to Edinburgh, which was then enjoying the intellectual stimulus of the Scottish Enlightenment. Here he established himself as a portrait painter and became noted for his large family groups which included the families of his patrons including the Cathcarts and Erskines and the banker James Hunter Blair whose family portrait he painted.  In 1788 Allan married Shirley Welsh by whom he had five children of whom two survived to adulthood.  James Tassie who had remained a friend of Allan since their student days at Foulis Academy produced medallions of both David and Shirley to thank Allan, who had painted portraits of James and his wife Ann in 1781. Allan also engraved copies of all of Tassie’s medallions for the Catalogue of his his work – a vast task involving 57 plates with a dozen engravings on each.

In 1786 Allan was appointed Director of the Trustees Drawing Academy in Edinburgh in succession to Alexander Runciman and in competition several others including Alexander Nasmyth[2].  The Trustees Academy had been established in 1760 with the purpose of creating designs for the expanding wool and linen textile industries. The appointment of directors, who were eminent artists, led inevitably to the introduction of wider artistic interests, although Allan was obliged, as part of his duties, to submit designs for carpets and curtains. Over the years the Academy evolved into the Edinburgh College of Art which is now part of Edinburgh University. 

The post provided Allan with a secure salary of £120 a year. Teaching occupied only six hours a week which left him with free time to continue his own paintings and give private tuition.  During this period he produced urban pictures of Edinburgh scenery and characters.  Allan also painted genre scenes of Scottish country life such as The Highland Dance and The Penny Wedding

Madge routs Bauldy Allan’s illustration for Ramsay’s Gentle Shepherd

 His illustrations for Allan Ramsay’s Gentle Shepherd were highly praised by no less a critic than Robbie Burns. ‘He must be a man of very great genius.  Why is he not more known?….He is the only artist who has hit genuine Pastoral costume’. [3] Allan responded to Burn’s kind comments by including a reproduction of Burn’s portrait by Alexander Nasmyth as the eldest son in his illustration for the Cotter’s Saturday Night. This again delighted Burns. ‘I look on Mr Allen’s (sic) chusing my favourite Poem for his subject, to be one of the highest complnts I have ever received’[4], and in another letter ‘Several people think that Allan’s likeness of me is more striking than Nasemith’s (sic)’.[5]  

The Cottar’s Saturday Night by David Allan. Robert Burns is the figure next to the elderly cottar reading a book.

Allan’s style has sometimes been likened to that of Hogarth, one reviewer wrote ‘….his characteristic talent lay with expression, in the imitation of nature with truth and humour, especially in the representation of laughable incidents in low life. His vigilant eye lay always 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.’[6]

During his last years Allan was busily engaged by George Thomson, clerk to the Board of Trustees which administered the Drawing Academy, in producing illustrations to accompany the poems of Robert Burns.  Allan produced about twenty with which Burns was delighted but alas only a few were published.  In 1793 he produced the excellent aquatint painting of the High Street which shows so many of the features that appear in the Painting possibly painted in the following year. 

 In 1795 Allan produced his last and one of his best paintings, The Penny Wedding, which influenced David Wilkie in his painting of the same subject.

The Penny Wedding. Note the dog which was Allan’s trademark

Allan died in 1796 having suffered severely in his last years from dropsy, a symptom of heart failure.  During his short life he produced over 400 recorded works. He is buried in the Old Calton Cemetery where his grave is marked by a headstone erected by the Royal Scottish Academy.     

Allan’s grave in the Old Calton Cemetery. In the left background is the memorial to David Hume.

Although Allan and Kay had much in common including an inborn talent and love of drawing, there was one striking difference – while Allan had spent nearly twenty years receiving formal education in art at the Foulis Academy in Glasgow and St Luke’s Academy in Rome, Kay was almost entirely self- taught.  It is interesting to speculate that Allan may have had some influence on Kay’s success.  Kay started etching his drawings on copper plates in 1784, soon after Allan’s return to Edinburgh.  Etching with nitric acid, was a highly skilled process, which could not have been acquired without instruction. Kay’s neighbour, Allan, was a master of the art and one of the first in Scotland to use the technique.  Could he have been Kay’s teacher?

[1] James Tassie (1735-1799) was a Glaswegian who trained at the Foulis Academy at the same time as David Allan. Together with a physician, Henry Quin, he developed a vitreous paste which could be hardened to produce enduring jewels and medallions.  His fame became so great that Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, purchased thousands of examples of his work. Allan illustrated the Catalogue of his products.

[2] Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840) was a contemporary and friend of Allan.  He had been a pupil at the Trustees Academy and was a contestant for the Directorship vacancy to which Allan was appointed.  The two men can be seen engaged in conversation in Sibbald’s Bookshop in the portrait by Johnston. Nasmyth was one of the artists whose names have been linked with the Painting and remains one of the possibilities.  

[3] Burns to Alexander Cunningham, 3 March 1794, in Ferguson, J.de L., (1985) The Letters of Robert Burns, read Second Edition, Ed. G. Ross Roy, Clarendon Press. Oxford, II p285-6

[4] Letters to George Thomson, May 1794 cited in Gordon p59.

[5] Ibid. Letters to George Thomson May 1794 p294, and May 1795 p356

[6] From 1808 Ed of The Gentle Shepherd II p629-30