Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cunningham, Allan (1784-1842)

CUNNINGHAM, ALLAN (1784–1842), miscellaneous writer, was born in the parish of Keir, Dumfriesshire, on 7 Dec. 1784. His father, John Cunningham (1743–1800), was descended from an Ayrshire family, and in 1784 was factor to a Mr. Copeland of Blackwood House, Keir. John Cunningham married Elizabeth Harley, daughter of a Dumfries merchant, and had by her five sons and four daughters. The mother's marked intellectual power was transmitted to her children. James, the eldest son (b. 1765), became a builder, contributed to magazines, and died on 27 July 1832. Thomas Mounsey (b. 1776) [q. v.] became managing clerk to Sir John Rennie, the engineer; he composed some popular songs and contributed articles called a ‘Literary Legacy’ to the ‘Edinburgh Magazine’ (1817); he died of cholera on 28 Oct. 1834. John, the third son, died young. Peter Miller, the fifth (b. 1789) [q. v.], became a surgeon in the navy. When Allan, the fourth son, was two years old, his father became factor to Mr. Miller at Dalswinton, and was a friend and neighbour of Burns during the poet's Ellisland period. He died in 1800. Allan was educated at a dame's school, and before completing his eleventh year was apprenticed to his brother James, then a stonemason in Dalswinton village. At leisure moments he read all the books he could procure, picked up popular poetry, was a welcome guest at village merrymakings, and fond of practical jokes. During the fears of an invasion he joined another lad in alarming the whole country-side by putting mysterious marks upon all the houses by night, which were attributed to French agents. They escaped detection. He saw Burns lying dead, and walked in the funeral procession. When about eighteen he went with his brother James to pay a visit of homage to Hogg, the Ettrick shepherd, who became a warm friend of both brothers. He paid twenty-four shillings for a copy of Scott's ‘Lays’ on its first appearance, and when ‘Marmion’ came out walked to Edinburgh and back to catch a glimpse of the author. A letter to the minister of Dalswinton, John Wightman (April 1806), shows that he was then reading various solid books, and both reading and writing poetry. Some poems signed Hidallan (a hero of Ossian's) were published in the ‘Literary Recreations’ (1807), edited by Eugenius Roche. His employer offered him a partnership, and while engaged in his work he fell in love with Jean Walker, servant in a house where he lodged, and addressed to her a popular song, ‘The Lass of Preston Mill.’

In 1809 R. H. Cromek [q. v.] was travelling in Scotland to collect songs. He brought an introduction to Cunningham from Mrs. Fletcher, well known in the Edinburgh circles. Cunningham produced his poems, of which Cromek thought little. Cunningham then hit upon the plan of disguising them as old songs. Cromek now admired, and was probably taken in for the moment. He accepted them readily, and was not less eager for the songs, if, as is probable, he suspected their real origin. Cunningham continued to forward ballads to Cromek in London, and Cromek persuaded him to come to London himself and try literature. Cunningham consented, reaching London on 9 April 1810. A volume called ‘Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song’ appeared the following December, of which Cunningham says (Hogg, p. 79) that ‘every article but two little scraps was contributed by me,’ a fact by no means discoverable from Cromek's acknowledgment in the introduction of Cunningham's services in drawing ‘many pieces from obscurity.’ The book, which contains interesting accounts in prose of the Scotch border peasantry, obviously by Cunningham, was favourably received, and the mystification as to the origin of the ballads was always transparent to the more intelligent, especially Scott and Hogg. An article upon this volume by Professor Wilson in ‘Blackwood's Magazine’ for December 1819 first drew public attention to Cunningham's poetical merits. Cromek paid Cunningham with a bound volume and a promise of something on a new edition. He also received Cunningham in his house, and gave him an introduction to Francis Chantrey, who was just rising into notice.

Cunningham obtained employment from a sculptor named Bubb at twenty-five shillings (raised to thirty-two shillings) a week. He applied to Eugenius Roche, now editing the ‘Day,’ who allowed him a guinea a week for poetry, and employed him as a parliamentary reporter. He describes his performance in this capacity in a letter to his brother, dated 29 Dec. 1810, where he announces another collection of songs. Jean Walker now came to him, and they were married at St. Saviour's, Southwark, on 1 July 1811. He obtained employment from his countryman, Jerdan, editor of the ‘Literary Gazette,’ and in 1813 published a volume of ‘Songs, chiefly in the rural dialect of Scotland.’ In 1814 he was engaged by Chantrey as superintendent of the works, and gave up newspapers. He lived afterwards at 27 Lower Belgrave Place, Pimlico. He acted as Chantrey's secretary, conducted his correspondence, represented him during his absence, and occasionally ventured an artistic hint. He became known to Chantrey's sitters, and commanded general respect. The connection, honourable on both sides, lasted till Chantrey's death.

Cunningham had to provide for a growing family, and worked hard at literature. He ‘rose at six and worked till six’ in Chantrey's studio, and wrote in the evening. He contributed a series of stories called ‘Recollections of Mark Macrabin, the Cameronian,’ to ‘Blackwood's Magazine,’ 1819–21. He gave up ‘Blackwood’ for the ‘London Magazine.’ In 1820 he submitted a drama called ‘Sir Marmaduke Maxwell’ to Sir Walter Scott, whose personal acquaintance he had made when Scott was sitting to Chantrey. Scott thought it unfit for the stage, though praising its poetry. He pays it a compliment in the preface to the ‘Fortunes of Nigel.’ It was published in 1822 with some other pieces. In 1822 appeared also two volumes of ‘Traditional Tales of the English and Scottish Peasantry,’ and in 1825 four volumes of ‘The Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern.’ This includes ‘A Wet Sheet and a Flowing Sea,’ which though written by a landsman is one of our best sea songs. In the following years he tried romances, now forgotten, ‘Paul Jones,’ 1826, ‘Sir Michael Scott,’ 1828, ‘Maid of Elvar,’ poem in 12 parts, 1833, and the ‘Lord Roldan,’ 1836. He adopted a fashion of the day by bringing out the ‘Anniversary’ for 1829 and 1830, an annual with contributions from Southey, Wilson, Lockhart, Hogg, Croker, Procter, and others. From 1829 to 1833 appeared his ‘Lives of the most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects,’ 6 vols., forming part of Murray's ‘Family Library.’ It is well and pleasantly written, and had a large sale. His knowledge of contemporary artists gives it some permanent value. An edition in three volumes, edited by Mrs. Charles Heaton, appeared in Bohn's ‘Standard Library’ in 1879. A meritorious edition of Burns in eight volumes, which appeared in 1834, was the last work of importance during his life. He corrected the last proofs of a life of Sir David Wilkie just before his death, and it appeared posthumously.

Cunningham's domestic life was happy. His letters to his mother show that his filial affection was as enduring as Carlyle's. A poem to his wife, first printed in Alaric Watts's ‘Literary Souvenir’ for 1824, gives a pleasing and obviously sincere account of his lifelong devotion. They had five sons and a daughter. Scott in 1828 obtained cadetships for two sons, Alexander and Joseph [q. v.], in the Indian service. Both did well. Peter [q. v.] became clerk in the audit office, and was the well-known antiquary. Francis [q. v.] also entered the Indian army. In 1831 Cunningham visited Nithsdale, was presented with the freedom of Dumfries, and entertained at a public dinner, whither Carlyle came from Craigenputtock and made a cordial speech in his honour. Carlyle afterwards met Cunningham in London. He admired the ‘stalwart healthy figure and ways’ of the ‘solid Dumfries stonemason’ (Reminiscences, ii. 211), and exempted him as a pleasant Naturmensch from his general condemnation of London scribblers. He was generally known as ‘honest Allan Cunningham,’ and was a stalwart, hearty, and kindly man, with a tag of rusticity to the last.

Chantrey died in 1841, leaving an annuity of 100l. to Cunningham, with a reversion to Mrs. Cunningham. Cunningham had already had a paralytic attack, and he died on 30 Oct. 1842, the day after a second attack. He was buried at Kensal Green. His widow died in September 1864.

[David Hogg's Life of Cunningham, 1875; Lockhart's Scott (1 vol. ed.), pp. 425, 440, 447, 457, 646, 685; Froude's Carlyle, i. 220, 293, ii. 186, 208, 441, 448; S. C. Hall's Memories of Great Men of the Age, pp. 422–30 (with passages from an unpublished autobiography); same in Art Journal for 1866, p. 369; preface by Peter Cunningham to A. Cunningham's Songs and Poems, 1847; James Hogg's Reminiscences in Works (1838–40), vol. v. pp. cix–cxiii; John Holland's Memorials of Chantrey (1856), p. 263; Mrs. Fletcher's Autobiography (1875), p. 122; memoir by Mrs. Henton prefixed to British Painters (1879); Fraser's Magazine for September 1832, with a portrait.]

L. S.