Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Alison, Archibald (1757-1839)
ALISON, ARCHIBALD (1757–1839), writer on ‘Taste,’ was the son of Patrick Alison, provost of Edinburgh, a younger son of an Alison of Newhall, near Cupar Angus. Archibald was educated at Glasgow, where he became intimate with Dugald Stewart, and obtained an exhibition to Balliol, matriculating in 1775, and taking the degree of LL.B. in 1784. In the last year (14 June) he married Dorothea, daughter of Dr. John Gregory, author of ‘A Father's Legacy to his Daughters.’ Dr. Gregory died in 1773; and his daughter lived, till her marriage, with his friend, the well-known Mrs. Montague. Alison took orders in the church of England; his first preferment was Brancepeth, in Durham; at the time of his marriage he was incumbent of Sudbury, Northamptonshire, where he made the acquaintance of Telford, employed by Sir William Pulteney to repair the parsonage. In 1790 he published his ‘Essay on the Nature and Principles of Taste.’ In the same year Sir W. Pulteney gave him the perpetual curacy of Kenley, in Shropshire, and in 1794 the vicarage of High Ercal, to which, in 1797, was added the rectory of Rodington (in the chancellor's gift), in the same county. In 1791 Bishop Douglas appointed him to a prebend in Salisbury, He resided till 1800 at Kenley, where he studied natural history as a disciple of White of Selborne, and introduced a system of allotments for the benefit of his parishioners. In 1800 he became minister of the episcopal chapel, Cowgate, Edinburgh, thinking that he could give his sons a better education and more independent careers in Scotland. He passed the rest of his life in this position, living in Edinburgh and the neighbourhood. His sermons were much admired, and two volumes, published in 1814–15, went through several editions. Four on ‘The Seasons’ were republished by themselves. His son says that, ‘as impressive pieces of pulpit eloquence, they were never excelled,’ though he complains that his father had not ‘enough of the devil in him to find the devil out;’ in other words, that he took too optimistic a view of human nature. He seems to have led a studious, retired, and rather indolent life; generally lying in bed ‘reading or thinking’ till two in the afternoon; he never wrote except under strong pressure, and his books are only fragments of a larger design. He was tried by the death of a daughter in 1812, and another (Mrs. Gerald) in 1819. In 1830 his wife died suddenly; and after a severe illness in the same year, attacking lungs already injured by an illness in 1805–6, he gave up active duty. He died 17 May 1839, in his 82nd year. He was buried in St. John's churchyard, Edinburgh. A monument to his memory, with an inscription by Jeffrey, was erected in St. Paul's Chapel.
Brougham told Alison's son that he knew by heart at least half the father's sermons on autumn, which he regarded as ‘one of the finest pieces of composition’ in the language. The opinion may have been sincere, but will scarcely be confirmed by modern readers. Alison’s sermons are in the polished style of Blair, elegant discourses, showing more study of the ‘Spectator’ than of the masters of theological eloquence. The essays on ‘Taste’ are in a similar style, and follow the teaching of the Scotch school. They are dedicated to his intimate friend, Dugald Stewart; and a criticism of them may be found in Brown's fifty-sixth lecture. Jeffrey gave an admiring exposition of Alison's theories in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ for May 1811, which with some additions became the article on ‘Beauty’ in the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ republished in Jeffrey's essays. Alison's main purpose is to prove that beauty is not a quality of things considered as existing apart from the mind, but a product of trains of agreeable ideas, set up in the imagination by objects associated with, or directly suggestive of, the simple emotions, The association theory, which plays a considerable part with Alison, is still more prominent with Jeffrey, who exaggerates the purely arbitrary element admitted by his teacher. Alison's essays, though their psychology is out of fashion, contain many happy illustrations, and may still be read with interest. They reached a sixth edition in 1825.
[Gent. Mag. for Sep. 1839; S. D. U. K. Dictionary; Sir A. Alison's Autobiography.]