Allan Cunningham

Anonymous, Memoir in Cunningham, British Painters (1879) 1:vii-xxi.

ALLAN CUNNINGHAM, like most Scotchmen, claimed descent from an ancient family. The Cunninghams of Cunningham had been bold barons in their day, had drawn the claymore for their king, and had held large possessions in Ayrshire. Allan's more immediate progenitors, however, were simply small tenant farmers in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh; and his father, John Cunningham, having been obliged to give up farming on his own account, filled the office of land-steward or factor to several gentlemen. John Cunningham was a man of superior intellect to that usually found in the position he occupied; he had, it is said, some knowledge of scientific agriculture, and he was "fond of collecting all that was characteristic of his country," a taste transmitted to several of his sons. The mother also was a woman of good education and considerable ability, having a poetic fancy and great taste for literature.

To this worthy and somewhat uncommon pair were born nine children — five sons and four daughters — all of whom seem to have been remarkable for more than ordinary capabilities, several of them besides Allan evincing a talent for poetry, and possessing literary power. Allan, the fourth son, was born at Blackwood, in Dumfriesshire, in a cottage on the banks of the Nith, on the 7th of December, 1784. Soon after his birth, however, his parents removed to Dalswinton, with which village, as we see in his verses, all his earliest memories were associated. Here he gained what knowledge he could at a dame-school, learning, at all events, to spell through the Bible, and was then, at eleven years of age, placed with his elder brother James to learn the trade of stonemason.

From henceforth, one would imagine, there could not have been much opportunity for literary culture, but "where there's a will there's a way," and the boy stonemason was as wilful as could be desired in the pursuit of knowledge. "In the evenings," says his recent biographer, the Rev. David Hogg, "after the labours of the day were over, as well as at the midday hour, he read with avidity every book within his reach, listened eagerly to every snatch of old ballad he heard sung, treasured up every story told, his own imagination amply supplying any omission in the narrative or any failure in the memory of the narrator." Moreover, he taught himself English grammar, and managed by constant practice to acquire facility in composition.

Yet we must by no means think of young Allan as a pale student condemned during the day to an uncongenial occupation, and only happy when burning midnight oil. On the contrary, his labours as a stonemason do not seem to have been at all distasteful to him, and when freed from them he appears to have been foremost in every piece of merry mischief going on in the neighbourhood. Numerous stories are told of his youthful pranks, in most of which he was assisted by a young fellow named M'Ghie, the son of a weaver, and Allan's chief friend at this time. On one occasion, Mr. Hogg relates, when the inhabitants of their village were suffering like the rest of England from a nightmare fear of a French invasion, they awoke one morning and found every house in the place mysteriously marked with a number. Great was the alarm, for the village was not far from the coast, and it was feared that the enemy had secretly landed and were making observations. Every one was kept on the alert, and it was not for some time that it was discovered that a heartless hoax had been played on the worthy folk of Kirkmahoe. After this a placard was secretly posted in several places, offering a reward of 50 for the conviction of the offenders "who had been guilty of wantonly, maliciously, and profanely imitating David's numbering of the people, and the marking of the dwellings of tho Israelites," but it was never found out until Mr. M'Ghie revealed the secret, a short time before his death, which happened in 1868, that he and Allan were not only the perpetrators of the joke, but also the authors of the subsequent placard.

A wider mystification was soon to be carried into effect by the incorrigible Allan. He was now, although still working diligently as a stonemason and even acquiring a considerable reputation for his skill in the trade, trying the strength of his muse in various verses that he contributed from time to time to a London magazine called Literary Recreations, under the signature of "Hidallan," the name of one of Ossian's heroes. The editor of this magazine, an Irishman named Eugenius Roche, was evidently proud of having a young, self-taught poet to introduce to his public, and gave him every encouragement, so that hopes of literary fame began to dawn upon him, and all the time that could be spared from building whinstone was given to composing national songs. "My dear James," he writes to his eldest brother about this time, "I have been holding high converse in the path of song since I saw you. I have composed eleven 'split new ones,' one of which I have enclosed. Want of time prevents my sending more which I deem of superior worth. I have no place to compose my mind in but in the Babelonian slang of tongues which compose a workman's kitchen. I am, however, much at my ease and comparatively serious." Comparatively, it will be observed. Though now twenty-five and a highly esteemed workman, to whom was always confided the most artistic portion of the building in hand, and who had even been offered a partnership by his master, the spirit of fun was still strong within him.

This was suddenly called forth in an unexpected direction in 1809, when Mr. Cromek, a London engraver, whose dealings with Stothard and Blake I shall hereafter have occasion to notice, came to Dumfriesshire with the former artist, who was then collecting materials for his illustrations to Burns, and got introduced to Allan Cunningham. Cromek was fond of dabbling in antiquarian pursuits, and was delighted to find his young friend Allan well versed in all the old ballad literature of his country. "In one of their conversations on modern Scottish song," writes Mr. Peter Cunningham in the introduction to his edition of his father's Poems and Songs, "Cromek made the discovery that the Dumfries mason on eighteen shillings a week was himself a poet. Mrs. Fletcher may have told him as much: this, however, is immaterial. Cromek, in consequence of this discovery, asked to see some of his 'effusions.' They were shown to him, and at their next meeting he observed, as I have heard my father tell with great good humour, imitating Cromek's manner the while, 'Why, sir, your verses are well — very well; but no one should try to write songs after Robert Burns, unless he could write like him or some of the old minstrels.' "The disappointed poet nodded assent, changed the conversation, and talked about the old songs and fragments of songs to be picked up among the peasantry of Nithsdale. "'Glad, sir!' said Cromek, 'if we could but make a volume — Glad, sir ! see what Percy has done, and Ritson, and Mr. Scott more recently with his Border Minstrelsy.'"

The idea instantly flashed across young Allan's mind of providing what Cromek thus ardently desired, by passing upon him a volume of imitations of his own, as genuine remains collected from the old inhabitants of Nithsdale and Galloway. The fun of the thing was probably at first its chief recommendation. It was irresistible, and without thinking anything more about it, Allan Cunningham committed himself to the undertaking.

Cromek was easily gulled, or more likely pretended to be, and when Allan sent him a few fragments as specimens, cried eagerly for more. Under these circumstances the supply, of course, was not likely to fail, and many charming ballads and songs, such as the Bonnie Lady Anne, She's gone to dwell in Heaven, It's Hame and it's Hame, Thou hast sworn by thy God, and others, were promptly despatched to London. These, though written, it is true, in the old style of verse, were not of a nature to deceive acute criticism and it is not improbable that they did not, even at the first, impose upon Cromek, who was a tolerably good judge in such matters, as is proved by some of his remarks upon them. He kept a discreet silence, however, and professed a firm belief in the various old women and others whom Cunningham made out he consulted. Only in one of his letters he especially cautions Allan "not to divulge the secrets of the prison-house," and to let "no mortal eyes keek in" — language scarcely consistent with the collection simply of a few national songs. However this may be, Cromek assumed the whole merit and management of the proposed volume, which was finally published in 1810 under the title of Nithsdale and Galloway Song, Cromek being the reputed collector and editor, though in reality Cunningham wrote the whole — the interesting introduction and descriptive notes, as well as the ballads themselves.

Meanwhile, on Cromek's recommendation and persuasion, Allan had taken the bold step of renouncing his trade of stonemason, leaving kith and kin and the girl he loved and coming up to town to try his fortune. Cromek, it would seem, had somewhat misled Allan with regard to his prospects in London. Cromek himself at this time was in constant difficulties, and was not in a position to assist materially an ambitious young author, however much he might wish to do so; but it was doubtless a disappointment to Allan after waiting some time to find nothing better offer itself than employment with a sculptor of little note named Bubb, by whom he was engaged at twenty-five shillings a week, a sum afterwards increased by four shillings, as he tells his brother in one of his home letters. "I am unco well myself," he writes; "God be blessed for it and praised too. I have four shillings a week added to my wages. We had designed a general strike, and many are yet out of employment. One of our men was turned off, and I am now considered the soul and nerve of the shop, and the master has taken a great regard for me, so I live very well and happily. I have left my old lodgings, and a young man called Thomas Lowrie, a cabinet-maker from Dumfries, has joined me in taking a neat room, where I will be cheaper and more heartsome. Indeed, London is in no way suitable to any but a married person. I breakfast in one house, dine in another, sup in a third, and go to bed in a fourth. In every one of these places Extortion must have in her accursed hand. The thing is, everybody must live, and we buy one another like other vermin. So it would be no wonder were I found married in some letter or another soon." A pretty conclusion this for the prudent Allan to come to, that to save himself from extortion, and to reduce expenses, he had better get married!

This subtilty of reasoning would not probably have occurred to him, had he not already, as before hinted, lost his heart before he left Scotland, to a bonnie Dumfries lassie, whom he has celebrated as the Lovely Lass of Preston Mill.

There's comely maids on Dee's wild banks,
And Nith's romantic vale is fu'
By lunely Cluden's hermit stream
Dwells monie a gentle dame, I trow!
O, they are lights of a gladsome kind,
As ever shone on vale or hill;
But there's a light puts them a'out,
The lovely lass of Preston Mill.

This "lovely lass," Jean Walker by name, now came to shine upon him in London. They were married on the 1st of July, 1811, and we may hope he found her skill as a housekeeper successful in defeating London extortion.

Fortunately, in addition to his work with the chisel, Allan Cunningham was now beginning to find constant employment for his pen. On coming to London he had called on several editors, and among others upon Eugenius Roche, who had published his first effusions in the Literary Recreations. This gentleman was now editing a paper called The Day, and he kindly gave Allan an appointment upon it as reporter, which he held for some years, until his health obliged him to give it up. By this means, and with the aid of an occasional guinea or two for a "split new song," contributed to one of the magazines, he managed to push along and continued, as he says, "to keep his head above water, and on occasion take the middle of the causeway with an independent step," even though children now came to add to the economies of his household.

But after a, few years of this uncertain kind of work a new career opened out for him. On his first coming to London Cromek had introduced him to Chantrey, then only a rising young sculptor. The introduction at the time had no result, but now that Chantrey was beginning to be known to fame he bethought him of Cunningham as being likely to assist him in his work, and accordingly engaged him as superintendent of his workshop at a small salary at first, but this grew as time went on and business became more plentiful and profitable. The connection thus formed between these two young men,both of whom had begun life amidst the same humble surroundings and had struggled through difficulties to independence was of the greatest advantage to both. It was indeed based on the warmest regard, Chantrey always regarding Cumningham as his dearest friend, and Cunningham having a deep affection and profound admiration for Chantrey. Besides the assistance he rendered to him in carrying out his works in sculpture, he acted also as Chantrey's secretary and amanuensis, and was left in sole charge when Chantrey, as often happened, went away for months at a time on foreign travel.

It has been said that Chantrey was sometimes indebted to his poetic assistant for suggestions for his designs, but no one has pointed out with certainty any work in sculpture actually designed by Allan Cunningham. He had not indeed any creative power in art, though he was faithful in executing designs from the clay model.

But while thus engaged in the sculptor's studio by day, he still wielded the pen at night, contributing numerous articles to the London Magazine, Blackwood, and other magazines.

In 1817, he writes thus to one of his old friends in Scotland: "I wish I could tell you good tidings of myself, but I have nothing better to tell you than that I am toiling ardently for 'saps o' cream' to three boy bairns, and coats of callimanco to my wife. I preserve a decent silence in verse and prose, and I believe some of my best friends think I have steeked my gab for ever. Believe not one word of it. I will come out among them all some morning like a trumpet sounding in a lonely glen."

He was indeed now preparing for a higher flight in the realms of poetry than any he had yet attempted — no less than the writing of a tragedy which he hoped to see brought out on the stage. As may be surmised, however, his strength was not equal to this most difficult of tasks, though it is one upon which so many young poets have tried their "prentice hand." Sir Marmaduke Maxwell was published in March, 1822, together with a few songs and the fine ballad of the Mermaid of Galloway, which had before appeared in Cromek's volume. This little volume had been most favourably received by the critics, most of whom were loud in praise of the "touching poetry of Scotland." Some few, however, suspected a cheat. Bishop Percy avowed that the poems were "too good to be old," and Hogg, who had made the acquaintance of Allan and his brother James on the Scottish hills, boldly declared that his friend "Allan Cunningham was the author of all that was beautiful in the work." Sir Walter Scott was of the same opinion, but Professor Wilson was the first person who, as Hogg put it, "laid the saddle on the right horse." In a review in Blackwood's Magazine for December, 1819, he distinctly stated it as his belief that both the appendix and the poems themselves belonged to Allan Cunningham. "Can the most credulous person," he says, "believe that Mr. Cromek, an Englishman, an utter stranger in Scotland, should have been able, in a few days' walk through Nithsdale and Galloway, to collect, not a few broken fragments of poetry only, but a number of finished and perfect poems of whose existence none of the inquisitive literary men or women of Scotland had ever before heard, and that too in the very country which Robert Burns had beaten to its every bush? but independently of all this, the poems speak for themselves and for Allan Cunningham."

This appreciative review, from so excellent an authority fairly established Allan Cunningham's reputation. It did him good service with the publishers, and encouraged him to persevere in writing, which for some years past he had almost given up. It cannot be said, however, that Sir Marmaduke Maxwell was in any way a success. Before publishing it he sent the MS. to Sir Walter Scott, who, in the kindest manner, wrote him a long letter of advice and criticism, telling him of the faults of the piece, and that he did not think it fitted for the modern stage. This view was confirmed by the actor Terry, and Allan Cunningham, disheartened, never again attempted dramatic composition. Sir Marmaduke Maxwell is now remembered chiefly through Sir Walter Scott's kindly allusion to it in his introduction to The Fortunes of Nigel.

Cunningham's admiration for Sir Walter Scott had once led him, when a mere lad, to walk all the way from Dalswinton to Edinburgh in order to catch sight of the great author. It must, therefore, have been extremely gratifying to him when Scott came to London in 1820 to make his acquaintance in Chantrey's studio. Scott, even at their first interview, soon put Cunningham at his ease, "having," as he says, "the power — I had almost called it the art — but art it was not — of winning one's heart and restoring one's confidence, beyond any man I ever met; "and the two lovers of Scottish song soon became friends. They met often afterwards at Chantrey's studio, and discussed old ballads and other kindred subjects with national enthusiasm.

Cunningham's next work was a collection, in two volumes, of the tales he had contributed from time to time to the London Magazine. These were published under the title of Traditional Tales of the English and Scottish Peasantry, and included many curious relics of fairy belief, some of them enshrined by him in verse. He also republished his Cameronian Tales, that had appeared in Blackwood; but his principal work at this time was a collection of Scottish songs, in making which Sir Walter Scott gave him much valuable assistance. This work, which was gratefully dedicated to Sir Walter Scott, appeared in four volumes in 1826. Many of the songs in it are Allan Cunningham's own, and the introduction and notes, historical and critical, were all written by him, and are extremely interesting.

Next followed a work of a different kind — a piratical romance in broad Scotch, full of battle, murder, and sudden death but in no other way remarkable. It was called Paul Jones, and was pronounced, even by his friend the Ettrick Shepherd in one of his Noctes, to be "a most decided failure." The public also were of much the same opinion about another romance, "Sir Michael Scott," published in 1827. "My chief object," writes Cunningham regarding this work," was to write a kind of Gothic romance, a sort of British Arabian Nights, in which I could let loose my imagination among the mythological beings of fireside tales and old superstitions." But successful as he was in his national tales and character sketches, it would seem that he wanted the requisite power for constructing a continuous story filled with the necessary dramatis personae. As Scott told him of his tragedy, there is in his novels "a fine tone of supernatural impulse," but the interest is not kept up, because the effort to preserve it is too distinctly visible. Two other romances Lord Roldan, and the Maid of Elvar, followed Michael Scott. Both are now forgotten.

The first mention I find of the Lives of the British Painters occurs in a letter to his friend Mr. Ritchie, of The Scotsman, dated 20th October, 1828. He asks in this for some information concerning Jameson, and says, "I have some notion of writing the Lives of the British Painters on the plan of Johnson's Lives of the Poets. I am full of information on the subject, have notions of my own in keeping with the nature of the art, and I think a couple of volumes would not be unwelcome from one who has no theory to support, and who will write with full freedom and spirit." These two volumes, as we know, afterwards extended to six, the material increasing considerably as he went on. The first two were published in 1829, and called forth the following complimentary opinion from Prof. Wilson. "Allan Cunningham's Lives of the British Painters — I know not which of the two volumes is the best — are full of a fine and an instructed enthusiasm. He speaks boldly but reverentially of genius, and of men of genius; strews his narrative with many flowers of poetry, disposes and arranges his materials skilfully, and is, in a few words, an admirable critic on art — an admirable biographer of artists."

Cunningham himself, sending the first volume, containing the lives of Hogarth, Wilson, Reynolds, and Gainsborough, to his friend Ritchie, before mentioned, says of his work: "This ought to be the most popular of anything I have yet written, because I think it has more life and variety of narrative and anecdote than any of my works. I have read much, inquired much, and thought much, and formed my narratives from the best materials, and have endeavoured to impress them with a popular stamp." Their popularity was indeed immediate, and a second edition was required of the first two volumes long before the others were ready for publication. 12,000 copies were printed of the third volume, which appeared in 1830, the sale of the others having meanwhile risen to 14,000.

In 1831 he carried out a long-cherished desire to revisit Scotland, and passed a few days amid the well-remembered scenes of his early life; but his father was now dead, and the family scattered, so that there must have been as much of sadness as of pleasure in his recollections. Some of his Nithsdale friends, however, who were naturally proud of the poet their vale had produced, instituted a dinner in his honour, which is noteworthy as having called forth, it is said, the first public speech made by Thomas Carlyle. In less of Carlylese than his later utterances, our great latter-day Seer told the assembled company that he had come down from his retreat in the hills to meet Allan Cunningham at a time when scarcely any other circumstance would have induced him to move half a mile from home. He conceived that a tribute could not be paid to a more deserving individual, nor did he ever know of a dinner being given which proceeded from a purer principle. "When Allan left his native place," he continued, "he was poor, unknown, and unbefriended; nobody knew what was in hills, and he himself had only a slight consciousness of his own powers. He now comes back: his worth is known and appreciated, and all Britain is proud to number him among her poets." This warm recognition of his countrymen must have been very grateful to hard-working Allan, for he was hard-working still — "toiling," as he says, "in marble and bronze all day, and at night dipping the pen in biographical ink to earn an honest penny for the bairns' bread." The "bairns" were now, however, fine strapping fellows of great promise. The two eldest, Joseph and Alexander, had got government appointments in India; a third son, Francis, had also just gone out, and his youngest, Peter, was in the Audit Office, and was already beginning to be known in literature. Allan Cunningham's letters to his mother, published in his biography, are full of accounts of the doings of these clever sons, whose success in life was a great source of satisfaction in his declining years.

After the publication of the Lives of the Painters, the next work of importance Cunningham undertook was an edition, in eight volumes, of the works of Burns, with a life of the poet. This was a task for which he was well fitted, and one, no doubt, in which he, as a brother poet, took great delight; still the work that it entailed must have been very great, though he speaks in poetical terms of having merely

Gather'd, Burns, thy scatter'd flowers
Wi' filial hand.

His labours, however, are probably more correctly described in the following letter to Mr. Thomas Keightly, the author of The Fairy Mythology, who had written to him on some question of Elfin lore:—

"27, Lower Belgrave Place,

16 Dec. 1833.

Dear Sir, — I have used you ill, and myself worse, for my silence looks as though I slighted you and was an ill natured fellow. My life is that of a drudge: marble, bronze, clay, plaster, and drawings by day, and writing criticisms and idle lives, and other matters (all useful to one who has a wife and weans) during the evenings, drove elves and fairies out of my head. This was the less material since I have almost nothing to tell you. I am far from the land of Faery and cannot help myself to a lapful of anecdotes, all true and marvellous, from some fanciful old woman.

The Lancashire goblin or elve after whom you inquire, was described to me at third hand: his name of Padfoote, or Padfoot, is rustical enough. His chief business was to scare the benighted traveller; and the way in which he accomplished it, was by taking a stride below the ground for every stride tho traveller took above it; as the mortal fled, the immortal followed, and when the former thought he outstripped the wind and halted to listen, he heard Padfoote, to his horror, panting and enjoying a hoarse and unearthly laugh immediately below him. In this he resembles Will-o'-wisp: when Will has decoyed his victim into a quagmire or impassable lake, he hangs his treacherous lanthorn above him for a moment, then douses the glim and vanishes with an unearthly laugh.

You will find a fanciful account of a Faery funeral in my Life of Blake in the Lives of the Painters. If I had leisure I might give you some wizard light from the north on our Dumfriesshire elves, but I am over head and ears in Burns and his works. God bless and prosper your work.

Yours ever,


Commend me to Taylor — a better man and a kinder never breathed."

In 1841 the long service which Cunningham had rendered to his friend Chantrey was, to his infinite sorrow, brought to a close by the death of the sculptor. Allan had long been meditating giving up "toiling in marble and bronze," but it was sad to have his labours thus ended. He was asked to continue the work that Chantrey had undertaken, but this he refused, only pledging himself to finish such works as Chantrey had already modelled. Even this, it is doubtful whether he was able to fulfil, for these two faithful friends, who had each begun life under the same humble conditions, and who had worked together without intermission for twenty-eight years, were not long divided even in death. Chantrey left Cunningham an annuity of 100, to be continued to his widow; but he only received one payment of it before he followed Chantrey to the grave. His health, from over-work and other causes, had for some time been giving way, and on the 29th of October, 1842, a second attack of paralysis ended in his death, at the age of fifty-seven. He was buried at Kensal Green.

Allan Cunningham's last literary labour was the life of his friend and countryman, Sir David Wilkie, the proofs of which work occupied him only two days before his death. It was published in 1843, in three volumes. He also contemplated a series of Lives of the Poets, and, indeed, he speaks in one of his letters of the first volume being "all but ready," but this work has not as yet been given to the world. In person Allan Cunningham is described, by a writer in the Gentleman's Magazine, as having been "a tall, stout man, somewhat high-shouldered, broadchested, and altogether strongly proportioned. He had a noble brow, and dark expressive eyes set beneath shaggy eyebrows. His accent was strongly Scotch, and he expressed himself, when warmed into a subject, with eloquence and feeling; but, generally speaking, his manner was quiet and reserved — not, however; timid and gauche, like that of Sir David Wilkie, but easy and self-possessed — quiet from a habit of observing, rather than from a dislike to conversation." Add to this, that in all his dealings he was straightforward, right-minded, and conscientious, true to himself and others, full of "the pith o' sense and pride o' worth," and we have a picture of "the honest man" of Burns, who

Tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.