Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Allan, William
ALLAN, Sir WILLIAM (1782–1850), painter of history and scenes of Russian life, was born in Edinburgh, and was the son of the macer, a humble officer of the Court of Session. He was educated at the High School, Edinburgh, under William Nicol, the companion of Burns. Soon showing a love of art, he was apprenticed to a coach-painter, and studied under Graham at the Trustees' Academy, with Wilkie, John Burnet, and Alexander Fraser. After a few years he came to London, and entered the schools of the Royal Academy. His first exhibited picture was a ‘Gipsy Boy with an Ass’ (1803), in the manner of Opie. In 1805 he started for Russia, and was wrecked at Memel, where he recruited his funds by painting portraits of the Dutch consul and others. He then proceeded overland to St. Petersburg, passing through a great portion of the Russian army on its way to Austerlitz. At the Russian capital he found friends, including Sir Alexander Crichton, physician to the imperial family. Having learned Russian, he travelled in the interior of the country, and spent several years in the Ukraine, making excursions to Turkey, Tartary, and elsewhere, studying the manners of Cossacks, Circassians, and Tartars, and collecting arms and armour. In 1809 a picture by him of ‘Russian Peasants keeping their Holiday’ was exhibited at the Royal Academy. His wish to return in 1812 was prevented by the French invasion, many of the horrors of which he witnessed. Returning to Edinburgh in 1814, he was well received, and became something of a ‘lion.’ In 1815 his picture of ‘Circassian Captives’ attracted notice at the Royal Academy, though it did not find a purchaser; but Sir Walter Scott, John and James Wilson, Lockhart, and others, got up a lottery for it, with 100 subscribers at 10l. 10s. each, and the picture was won by the Earl of Wemyss. He now remained in Edinburgh, and though his pictures (including ‘Tartar Robbers dividing their Spoil,’ left to the nation by Mr. Vernon) did not find purchasers amongst his countrymen, some of them were bought by the Grand Duke Nicholas when he visited Edinburgh. Allan afterwards painted some scenes from Scottish history, suggested by the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Mr. Lockhart, M.P., bought his ‘Death of Archbishop Sharpe.’ and Mr. Trotter, of Ballendean, his ‘Knox admonishing Mary Queen of Scots,’ which was exhibited in 1823, and engraved by John Burnet. His ‘Death of the Regent Murray’ (exhibited 1825) was purchased by the Duke of Bedford for 800 guineas, and gained the artist his election as an associate of the Royal Academy. In 1826 he was appointed master of the Trustees' School, Edinburgh, an office which he held till a few years before his death.
Soon afterwards Allan's health gave way, and he was threatened with blindness. For rest and change he went to Rome, and, after spending a winter there, proceeded to Naples, Constantinople, Asia Minor, and Greece. In 1826 he exhibited ‘Auld Robin Gray,’ in 1829 the ‘Prophet Jonah.’ In 1830 he returned to Edinburgh restored to health. His picture of the ‘Slave Market, Constantinople,’ was purchased by Alexander Hill, the publisher, and ‘Byron in a Fisherman's Hut after swimming the Hellespont’ (exhibited 1831) by R. Nasmyth, who also bought Allan's portraits of Burns and Sir Walter Scott, which were engraved by John Burnet. A smaller one of Scott in his study was engraved for the ‘Anniversary,’ a periodical edited by Allan Cunningham, and one of Ann Scott by her father's empty chair, called the ‘Orphan,’ was bought by Queen Adelaide. In 1834 he visited Spain and Morocco. In 1835 he was elected a Royal Academician, and in 1838, on the death of Sir George Watson, president of the Royal Scottish Academy. In 1841 he went to St. Petersburg, and in the same year succeeded Wilkie as limner to the queen in Scotland, an office which was, as usual, followed (in 1842) by knighthood.
In 1843 Sir William exhibited the ‘Battle of Waterloo from the English side,’ which was purchased by the Duke of Wellington, and the next year went again to St. Petersburg, where he painted, for the Czar, ‘Peter the Great teaching his Subjects the Art of Shipbuilding,’ a picture now in the Winter Palace. The last large work which he finished was a second view of the battle of Waterloo, this time from the French side. It was exhibited at Westminster Hall in 1846, in competition for the decorations of the Houses of Parliament, but was unsuccessful. He visited Germany and France in 1847. At the time of his death in Edinburgh, on 23 Feb. 1850, Sir William was engaged on a large picture of the ‘Battle of Bannockburn,’ which is now in the National Gallery of Scotland. A portrait by Sir William Allan of Sir Walter Scott is in the National Portrait Gallery.
Sir William Allan was not a grreat painter; but he deserves to be remembered in the history of English art for the impulse he gave to historical composition, and the example he set in depicting the manners of unfrequented countries. In the distinguished society in which he moved, he was noted for the geniality of his disposition, his natural humour, and his power as a mimic.[Notes and Queries, 2nd series, vi. 528; Athenæum, 1850, pp. 240–1; Art Journal, 1849, pp. 108–9; Catalogues of Royal Academy, National Gallery, and National Portrait Gallery; Redgrave's Dictionary of Artists.]