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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Allan, David (1744-96)

The 'Scottish Hogarth' and illustrator of Burns's work, he was born in Alloa, son of the Shoremaster, also David Allan. The artist's mother, Janet Gullan, died two days after he was born. Educated at the parish school, through the influence of Lord Cathcart the young David entered the 'first officially recognized Academy of Art of the whole country', which had been started by Robert Foulis in 1754 at Glasgow University and which came to an end, bankrupt, in 1775. Robert Foulis and his brother, Andrew, were also responsible for producing fine editions of the classics at their printing presses in Glasgow.

Allan's wealthy patrons, who included Lord Cathcart, Lady Frances Erskine, Lady Charlotte Erskine and Mrs Abercrombie of Tullibody, then combined to raise the money to send the young artist to Rome to study. In return, Allan painted various pictures for presenting to his patrons. He also did portraits of many aristocratic families.

But it was with his illustrations to Ramsay's The Gentle Shepherd that Allan's name became a household word throughout Scotland. in a letter to Alexander Cunningham, dated by Ferguson 3rd March 1794, Burns expressed his admiration for the artist: 'By the bye, do you know Allan? He must be a man of very great genius. Why is he not more known? Has he no Patrons; or do "Poverty's cold wind and crushing rain beat keen and heavy" on him? I once, and but once, got a glance of that noble edition of the noblest Pastoral in the world, and dear as it was; I mean dear as to my pocket, I would have bought it; but as I was told that it was printed and engraved for Subscribers only.

'He is the only Artist who has hit genuine Pastoral costume...' And again Burns wrote to Thomson: 'I look on Mr Allen [sic] and Mr Burns to be the only genuine and real Painters of Scottish Costume in the world.'

Burns indeed, was right, for it was in his handling of peasant life and costume that the 'Scottish Hogarth' excelled.

In 1786 David Allan was appointed Director of the Trustees Academy of Art in Edinburgh, and it was in this capacity that he came into contact with the Principal Clerk, George Thomson, the Scottish folk-song collector. Thomson, of course, had approached Burns to write the words for his airs and realized that he would need an illustrator. Not unnaturally, he turned to Allan, who besides illustrating The Gentle Shepherd, had also done the illustrations for an edition of James Thomson's Seasons. Allan's two best-known engravings of Burns's work are 'Tam o' Shanter' and 'The Cotter's Saturday Night' (painting, a copy of which Thomson sent to the poet). In it the eldest son bears a str4iking resemblance to Burns. Allan never met Burns, but he copied the features from Nasmyth's portrait. Both pictures reflect Allan's characteristic humjou9r. In 'The Cotter's Saturday Night' the small boy (who struck Burns as resembling William Nicol Burns) is about to cut the cat's tail and in 'Tam o' Shanter' there is Burns's shadowy figure presiding over the party. Alan's other well-known work was 'The Penny Wedding' which again shows his colloquial humour.

In all Allan did twenty etchings for Thomson's collections, but they were never published in their entirety. The health of both artist and poet was by then rapidly deteriorating.

Burns died on 21st July, and was closely followed by Allan, on 6th August 1796.

Allan is buried in the Old Calton Cemetry, Edinburgh, not far from the grave of David Hume. By his wife, Shirley Welsh, herself a keen art student, and a great admirer of her husband's work, he had five children only one of whom, Barbara, reached adult life.

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