Born in Alloa, David Allan was a well-known artist. He began his apprenticeship at the early age of eleven, and went on to attend the drawing academy of Glasgow University. As was typical of many artists of the time, he travelled to Italy to study Italian art, and lived there for ten years.
Some of his best-known works, such as the 1781 Highland Dance, exemplify Allan’s take on Neapolitan genre style, applied to Scottish manners and customs. His work also relates directly to the Scottish vernacular poetry of Allan Ramsay and Robert Burns, in its characteristic way of responding to episodes of ordinary life. Allan and Burns both celebrated “the carefree life of ordinary people, unencumbered by property” (W. C. Monkhouse, rev. Duncan Macmillan, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. ‘David Allan’).
Allan collaborated with Burns through George Thomson: with the 1793 commission for Thomson’s song collection, the artist produced more than 100 drawings in oval format. Burns saw in Allan’s work a spirit similar to his own. The poet wrote to Thomson in November 1794:
I look on myself to be a kind of brother-brush with him. – “Pride in Poets is nae sin”, & I will say it, that I look on Mr Allen & Mr Burns to be the only genuine & real Painters of Scotish Costume in the world!
Burns owned a copy of Allan Ramsay’s The Gentle Shepherd as published by Foulis in Glasgow in 1788. This edition included new illustrations by David Allan and apparently Allan Cunningham presented Burns with a copy (now held at Edinburgh Public Library). In 1794 he described David Allan to Cunningham as a a “man of very great genius”, and marvelled that he was not better known than he was. Burns was clearly very pleased with his association with the artist through Thomson’s publications. In writing to Thomson about Allan’s illustration to ‘Woo’d and married an’ a’, he stated that he was:
highly delighted with Mr Allan’s etchings […] The expression of the figures conformidable to the story in the ballad is absolutely faultless perfection.
Unfortunately many illustrations did not make it into Thomson’s collection, including that for ‘Woo’d and married an’ a’’. They are, instead, collected in galleries as well as contemporaneous publications such as Allan’s own 1796 Etchings Illustrative of some Celebrated Scottish Songs and Alexander Campbell’s 1798 Introduction to the History of Poetry in Scotland. The same must have happened for Allan’s work on ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’: in April 1794 Thomson wrote to Burns that Allan had started working on a sketch inspired by the poem, and Burns excitedly replied that
I look on Mr Allen’s chusing my favourite Poem for his Subject, to be one of the highest compl.nts I have ever received.
In the artwork, Burns’ likeness (taken from Alexander Naysmith) was to provide the model for the character of the eldest son. It is therefore a shame that this work did not make it to Thomson’s Collection! Thomson referred to Allan as
an Artist who had a peculiar talent for the humorous deliniation of Scottish character and costume.
Artistically he was certainly an excellent choice for Thomson’s song illustrations; a number of illustrations were his own designs which he also engraved.
Burns wrote to Thomson that he had ideas about prefixing a vignette taken from “an artist of very considerable merit” who had recently made a likeness of him with which he was very pleased; he wished to prefix it to the song ‘Contented wi’ little & cantie wi’ mair” in order that “the portrait of my face & the picture of my mind may go down the stream of Time together. – ” (G. Ross Roy, The Letters of Robert Burns, vol. II, p. 356). The illustration to ‘Contented wi’ little’ that made it into Thomson’s publication was not however Burns’ portrait. Instead Allan depicts a smiling man seated at a table raises his hand, possibly to signal to a woman that she can stop pouring the generous quantity of wine we can see flowing from the bottle she holds. This indicates that he is “contented” with what he has – and of course he would be “canty” if he had more! or perhaps the hand indicates that he is giving a “skelp” to “sorrow & care”: below the illustration in fact is a caption from the poem:
Contented wi’ little, & canty wi’ mair,
Whene’er I forgather wi’ sorrow & care
I gi’e them a skelp as they’re creeping alang,
Wi’ a cog of good ale & an auld Scottish sang.
‘O whistle and I’ll come to you my Lad’ was also both designed and engraved by Allan. In an outdoor scene, a young couple have expressions of great complicity on their faces, as the lady seems to be giving the lad instructions. What she is telling him is made explicit in the verses below the oval, which are taken from Robert Burns’ song:
But warily tent when ye come to court me
And come na unless the back yet be a-jee
Syne up the back style & let naebody see
And come as if ye were na coming to me.
Allan also produced ‘John Anderson my Jo’ to accompany one of Burns’s best-loved songs in Thomson’s collection. Thomas Stothard had also produced an image for this song, and both were engraved by Paton Thomson. They are similar in many ways, both portraying an indoor setting with similar furniture, the couple in more or less the same position, and various objects adorning the interior common to both images; but Allan’s was evidently preferred. Thomson wrote to Burns that
Mr. Allan has made an inimitable drawing from your John Anderson my Jo, which I am to have engraved as a frontispiece to the humorous class of songs; you will be quite charmed with it I promise you. The old couple are seated by the fireside. Mrs. Anderson in great good humour is clapping John’s shoulders, while he smiles and looks at her with such glee, as to shew that he fully recollects the pleasant days and nights when they were first acquent. The drawing would do honour to the pencil of Teniers.
There is a definite innuendo to be read between the lines in Thomson’s words which speak to the original bawdy song on which Burns’s new ‘cleaner’ love song was based. This might explain why Thomson would want to use the illustration for the “humorous class of songs”.
Not all of Allan’s illustrations were engraved by him however. There was a strong collaboration with Thomas Stothard; one example is ‘Kind Robin lo’es me’. This illustration was engraved by Thomas Fryer Ranson, and drawn by Stothard based on a design by Allan. It shows an outdoor setting, with a young man and a maid running towards a humble shelter. Below the title are the two lines which describe the moment of the song which inspired Allan’s design:
Happy, happy was the show’r
That led me to his birken bow’r
Another similar collaboration between Allan as designer, Stothard as engraver, but with Robert Scott as engraver, is ‘Battle of Killiecrankie’. It depicts Viscount Dundee wounded, surrounded by emotional, anxious soldiers who seem on the verge of tears. Another soldier approaches them with the “banner of victory” – a sad omen of the fact that it will sadly soon be waving “over the dead”. Below the title is the inscription taken from the poem:
Triumphant, but bleeding, Dundee left the spot,
Where the death_hail of battle all thickest had smote.
For glory & fate by one messenger sped,
And the banner of victory waved over the dead.