Allan Cunningham

S. C. Hall, "Allan Cunningham" in A Book of Memories: Great Men and Women of the Age, from personal Acquaintance (1871) 417-25.

ALLAN CUNNINGHAM was born at Blackwood, near Dumfries, on the 7th of December, 1784, and died in London on the 29th of October, 1842. He was, therefore, not aged when called from earth; yet his was a giant frame, and a constitution singularly robust; all his habits were healthy; he had, during the later years of his life, perfect tranquillity of mind, without any dread of the future; he derived much comfort from the prospects of his children; and his home had been a happy home from the first day that his admirable wife came from her Scottish dwelling to share it — to share also in the honourable fame he obtained, all his own," to be the friend of the many friends he had acquired by the exercise of high and wholesome intellect, and by social qualities, without any drawback, that made his society a perpetual charm. Miss Landon once gave me his character in a sentence — "A few words of Allan Cunningham strengthen me like a dose of Peruvian bark!"

In his youthhood he followed the comparatively humble calling of a stonemason; not, however, without a thought that he might become a builder; and he was sorely tempted that way when, embarking for England at the port of Leith, an acquaintance sought to seduce him from his allegiance to the Muses by offering to become his partner in a scheme which might have led to fortune.

His forefathers were stout Scottish men of the Border, and of good blood, one of them having fought as an officer under the banner of the great Montrose at Kilsyth and Philiphaugh. His elder brother was a mason before him, and so a mason Allan became. Of another brother — Thomas — Hogg tells us he "had great poetical power, which he hid under lock and key." But the heart of Allan was not in "manual" labour, although he rapidly became a skilful workman; he loved better to pore over old books, listen to old songs and tales, and roam among his native hills and glens, for neighbouring Nithside was a place of much natural beauty. Hogg describes Allan, when young, as "a dark, ungainly youth, with a buirdly frame, and strongly-marked, manly features — the very model of Burns, and exactly such a man." He adds, "He is all heart together, without reserve either of expression or manner. You at once see the unaffected benevolence, warmth of feeling, and firm independence of a man conscious of his own rectitude and mental energies." A thirst for knowledge came early; but a love of writing, as I have heard him say, came late. He had gathered much before he gave out any; some of his lyrics, however, having made their way into print, he found it comparatively easy to climb the steep where "Fame's proud temple shines afar." He had his struggles certainly, but they were neither heavy nor prolonged; and although, for a time, a wanderer in London, trusting to the precarious chances of gain as a contributor to the public press, a fortunate circumstance placed him in a position where all peril of want was happily averted.

So early as 1809, Cromek, the engraver, accompanied by the artist Stothard, had visited Dumfries, to collect materials for an illustrated edition of the poems of Robert Burns. They were introduced to Allan Cunningham, who read to them some of his verses; these were pooh-poohed by Cromek, but when Allan repeated some snatches of old ballads, the idea occurred to the speculative publisher that to gather and print them, in the manner of Percy's "Reliques," would be a good scheme. The hint suggested itself to Allan that he might palm off upon the publisher some imitations as genuine: the bait took. Cromek who had no relish for Allan's original compositions, was delighted with the "imitations." It is understood that Cromek never guessed the fraud to be one until after the publication of the "Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song."

In order to see this book through the press, Allan accepted the invitation of Cromek to visit London; and in London he arrived on the 9th of April, 1810 — a memorable day, for it was the day on which Sir Francis Burdett was sent to the Tower.

The "Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song" became popular; it was regarded as a veritable collection of old fragments; "no one suspected a cheat;" none of the mere public, that is to say: for Bishop Percy at once pronounced them too good to be old, and Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg, and Professor Wilson did not for a moment hesitate as to the true authorship. They, as Hogg says, "laid the saddle on the right horse;" and although there may have been, as there ought to have been, doubts as to the morality of the transaction, the book gave Allan fame — nothing else; for Cromek presented to him a bound copy, alleging that it had been a costly work to produce, but promising "something handsome" when it reached a second edition.

After he had been two months in London, and had found that Cromek was unable to procure him the "situation" he expected, he engaged himself for twenty-five shillings (subsequently increased to thirty-two) a week "to an indifferent sculptor of the name of Bubb, in Carmarthen Street," where he found he had much spare evening time on his hands; and he goes on to say, in the autobiography to which I have referred,—

"I now thought of Eugenius Roche and the 'Literary Recreations,' a work which I never could persuade myself died of want of the breath of genius. I found him in Carey Street, a husband and a father, and as warm-hearted and kind as his correspondence had led me to imagine. He was well acquainted with foreign, as well as with English literature; wrote prose with fluency, and verse with ease and elegance; and was in looks and manners, and in all things, a gentleman — tall, too, spoke with a slight lisp, and was of a fair complexion. He had in other days expressed a desire to serve me, and pointed out the newspapers as a source of emolument to an able and ready writer, he was now the conductor of a paper called the Day, he told me he would give me a permanent situation upon it as a reporter as soon as the Parliamentary sessions began, and in the meantime he would allow me a guinea per week for any little poetic contributions which I liked to make. What the duties required of me were, I could form no opinion, but as I concluded that Roche must know I was fit to fulfil them, I was easy on that point. I was now well off as to money matters, and in a position to indulge a wish dear to my heart, namely, to bring my lass of Preston Mill to London, and let her try her skill as a wife and a housekeeper."

In 1814, Allan, bearing in mind the saying of his great countryman, that literature, though a good staff, is a bad crutch, entered the studio of Sir Francis Chantrey, as the general superintendent of his works; and there he remained until his death, residing in a house adjacent — No. 27, Lower Belgrave Place, Pimlico.

That, like all men who are the architects of their own fortunes, he had to wrestle for his, is very certain. In a letter to Professor Wilson, dated September, 1828, he says, "My life has been one continued struggle to maintain my independence, and support wife and children; and I have, when the labour of the day is closed, endeavoured to use the little talent which my country allows me to possess as easily and as profitably as I can. The pen thus adds a little to the profit of the chisel, and I keep my head above water, and on occasion take the middle of the causeway with an independent step."

It was while living upon chances, so to speak, and while yet in early youth, that he ventured on the bold step of marriage. From the lassie to whom he had pledged his troth, in his native village, his heart had never wandered; neither the lures of the metropolis, nor his dreams of distinction — that had been dreary as well as dim — had wiled his affection from his first and only love.

On this subject I borrow a passage from Allan's autobiography:—

"In the summer of 1812 I was a husband and a father. I was married on the 1st of July, 1811, in the Church of St. Saviour, Southwark, and did not fail, even in that hour of joy, to remark that James I., the poet-king of Scotland, had been married there also, and that we joined hands nigh the monument of Gower, and not far from the grave of Massinger. I had persuaded my lass of Preston Mill to come to London, nor did she reach me without finding good friends by the way. In the house of Gray, master of the High School of Edinburgh, she met the attention due to a daughter, was introduced to Dr. Anderson, and had the pleasure of hearing a letter read from Bishop Percy, in which he spoke well of the talents of her future husband. In James Hogg, also, and his comrade, Grieve, she met with attentive friends, who showed her the beauties of Edinburgh, conveyed her to the pier of Leith, and saw her safely embarked on the waves. Of her and my sister Jean, who accompanied her, Hogg thus wrote to my eldest brother James: — 'I had the pleasure of waiting on your two sisters for a few days, and I am sure there never was a brother took the charge of sisters more pleasantly than I did. But one of them, at least, needs nobody to take care of her — I mean the beauteous mermaid of Galloway, who is certainly a most extraordinary young woman. I introduced her to some gentlemen and ladies of my acquaintance, who were not only delighted, but astonished at her.' Jean Walker was then twenty years of age; her complexion was fine, and her eyes bright; and her prudence equalled her looks."

Mrs. Cunningham survived Allan many years, dying in September, 1864. She was a charming woman in her prime, and must have been very lovely as a girl. I have never known a better example of what natural grace and purity can do to produce refinement. Though peasant-born, she was, in society, a lady — thoroughly so. There was not only no shadow of vulgarity in her manners; there was not even rusticity; while there was a total absence of assumption and pretence; and she was entirely at ease in the "grand" society — men and women of rank as well as those eminent in Art, in Science, and in Letters — I have met as guests at her home.

Not long after he entered the studio of Chantrey, Cunningham published a dramatic poem, "Sir Marmaduke Maxwell," commemorating one of the heroes of his native district It was praised by the critics, and Sir Walter Scott generously "Handed the rustic stranger up to Fame," by a few laudatory words in the introductory epistle which prefaces the "Fortunes of Nigel."

Thenceforward his career in literature was easy and prosperous; his collection of the "Songs of Scotland" is a text-book for all after writers; and his novels, although pushed aside by more "sensational" works, retain an ample share of popularity. His poems are not numerous: his last poetical production of any length — the "Maid of Elvar" — is, perhaps, his best. The scene of this little rustic epic, as he correctly styles it, is laid in his native vale; and many of the delicious pictures it contains, with a true vein of poetry throughout, are drawn from rural life. It is, however, written in a measure ill calculated to become extensively popular. The poetical reputation of Allan Cunningham has been made, and is sustained, by his ballads and lyrical pieces. They are exquisite in feeling, chaste and elegant in style, graceful in expression, and natural in conception; they seem, indeed, the mere unstudied outpourings of the heart; yet will bear the strictest and most critical inspection of those who consider elaborate finish to be at least the second requisite of writers of song. His own country has supplied him with his principal themes; and the peculiar dialect of Scotland — in which he frequently wrote — his good taste prevents him from ever rendering harsh, or even inharmonious, to Southern ears.

The work, however, by which he did most good is the six volumes of "Lives of British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects." It has been objected to as less enthusiastic than the subject demanded; but the memoirs are earnest and true; they manifest sufficient research, and bear strong evidence of thorough knowledge; while they are the productions of a graceful pen, discharging a pleasant task with critical nicety and sound discretion. Southey wrote to him, "Your 'British Painters' will live as long as any records of British Art remain. It is the best book of its kind that has ever fallen in my way." And Leslie, who was to follow him as a biographer of Reynolds, in thanking him for one of the volumes, says, — "I cannot but set a high value on a compliment from one with whose published opinions on the characters of our deceased artists, if on a very few points I differ, in the main I entirely agree.

Few men have received finer compliments from their contemporaries; that of Southey is well-known:—

Allan, true child of Scotland; thou who art
So oft in spirit on thy native hills
And yonder Solway shore, a poet thou!

Those of Scott, of Hogg, and of Wilson I have quoted. "Stalwart of form and stout of heart and verse — a ruder Burns," writes Talfourd. When he edited the Anniversary, one of the Annuals, he obtained the aid of Wilson and many other writers, tempted by friendship, whom no money could have tempted. It was at his house — honoured guests, receiving honour — I met some of the greatest men of the age — among them Scott and Southey; and there was no man of any rank in England or in Scotland who would not have considered it a privilege to be classed among his friends.

It is our happiness so to class ourselves; and I am tempted to print one of his letters to Mrs. Hall among the few of his I have preserved:—

"Belgrave Place, 3rd August, 1836.


I will do anything for you, but my Muse, poor lassie, has lost much of her early readiness and spirit, and finds more difficulty in making words clime and lines keep time; but she will work for you, and as she loves you, who knows but some of her earlier inspiration may come to her again? for you must know I think her strains have lost much of their free wild nature since WE came from the land of the yellow broom and the blossomed heather.

Yours ever and ever,


I shall, I hope, be pardoned for extracting a passage from a letter I received from him soon after the issue of the first volume of my "Book of Gems:"—

"Your 'Book of Gems' was welcome for your sake, painting's sake, poetry's sake, and my own sake. I have done nothing but look at it since it came, and admire the good taste of the selections, and the happy language — clear too, and discriminating — of the biographies. It will do good both to the living and the dead — directing and animating the former, and giving a fresh lustre to the latter. If it obtains but half the success which it deserves, both your publisher and yourself ought to be satisfied. I have made the characters of our poets my study — studied them both as men and as bards, looking at them through the eyes of nature, and I am fully warranted in saying that our notions very seldom differ, and that you come nearer my feelings on the whole than any other person, save one, whom I have ever met. You will see this when my 'Lives of the Poets' are published, and that will be soon, for the first volume is all but ready."

An interesting anecdote is recorded by Lockhart in his Life of Scott:—

"Breakfasting one morning with Allan Cunningham, and commending one of his publications, Scott looked round the table, and said, "What are you going to make of all these boys, Allan?' 'I ask that question often at my own heart,' said Allan, 'and I cannot answer it.' 'What does the eldest point to?' 'The callant would fain be a soldier, Sir Walter, and I have a half-promise of a commission in the king's army for him, but I wish rather he could go to India, for there the pay is a maintenance, and one does not need interest at every step to get on.' Scott dropped the subject, but went an hour afterwards to Lord Melville (who was then President of the Board of Control), and begged a cadetship for young Cunningham. Lord Melville promised to inquire if he had one at his disposal, in which case be would gladly serve the son of honest Allan; but the point being thus left doubtful, Scott, meeting Mr. John Loch, one of the East India Directors, at dinner the same evening at Lord Stafford's, applied to him, and received an immediate assent. On reaching home at night, he found a note from Lord Melville intimating that he had inquired, and was happy in complying with his request. Next morning Sir Walter appeared at Sir Francis Chantrey's breakfast table, and greeted the sculptor (who is a brother of the angle) with, 'I suppose it has sometimes happened to you to catch one trout (which was all you thought of) with the fly and another with the bobber. I have done so, and I think I shall land them both. Don't you think Cunningham would like very well to have cadetships for two of those fine lads?' 'To be sure he would,' said Chantrey, 'and if you'll secure the commissions, I'll make the outfit easy.' Great was the joy in Allan's household on this double good news, but I should add that, before the thing was done, he had to thank another benefactor. Lord Melville, after all, went out of the Board of Control before be had been able to fulfil his promise. But his successor, Lord Ellenborough, on hearing the circumstances of the case, desired Cunningham to set his mind at rest, and both his young men are now prospering in the Indian service."

In one of her earlier sketches Mrs. Hall thus pictures Allan Cunningham:—

"I can clearly recall the first interview I had with him; it was before I had been much in literary society, and when I was but little acquainted with those whose works had found places in my heart. I remember how my cheek flushed, and how pleased and proud I was of the few words of praise he gave to one of the first efforts of my pen. He was then a stout man, somewhat high-shouldered, broad-chested, and altogether strongly proportioned; his head was firm and erect, his mouth close, yet full, the lips large, his nose thick and broad, his eyes of intense darkness (I could never define their colour), beneath shaggy and flexible eyebrows, and were, I think, as powerful, yet as soft and winning, as any eyes I ever saw. His brow was expansive, indicating by its breadth not only imagination and observation, but, by its height, the veneration and benevolence so conspicuous in his character. His accent was strongly Scotch, and when warmed into a subject, he expressed himself with eloquence and feeling; but generally his manner was quiet and reserved; quiet more from a habit of observing than from a dislike to conversation In after years, when it was my privilege to meet him frequently, it was a pleasure to note the respect he commanded from all who were distinguished in Art and in Letters. He had a sovereign contempt for anything that approached affectation — literary affectation especially; and certainly lashed it, even in society, by words and looks of contempt that could not be easily forgotten. 'Wherever,' I have heard him say, 'there is nature, wherever a person is not ashamed to show a heart, there is the germ of excellence. I love nature!' His dark eyes would often glisten over a child or a flower; and a ballad, one of the songs of his native land, would move him to tears (I have seen it do so more than once), that is to say, if it were sung 'according to nature,' with no extra 'flourish,' no encumbering drapery of form to disturb the 'natural' melody."

Allan, as I have said, was a man of stalwart form; it was well knit, and, apparently, the health that had been garnered in childhood and in youth was his blessing when in manhood. Certainly, to all outward seeming, he had ample security for a long life; his brow was large and lofty; his face of the Scottish type — high cheek-bones and well rounded; his mouth flexible and expressive, yet indicative of strong resolution; his eyes were likened, by those who knew both persons, to those of Burns, and no doubt they were so; they were deeply seated, and almost black, surrounded by a dark rim, and shadowed by somewhat heavy, dark eyebrows. His manners conveyed conviction of sincerity; they were not refined, neither were they rugged, and the very opposite of coarse. It was plain that, for all his advantages, he was indebted to Nature; for although he mixed much in what is called "polite society," and was a gentleman whose companionship was courted by the highest — statesmen and peers — up to the last he had "a smack of the heather."

Nothing seemed to irritate him so much as affectation, either with the pen or pencil, or in word, or look, or manner. I have seen him exasperated by a lisp in a woman, and by a mincing gait in a man; any pretence to be what was not, made him, so to say, furious. I would close this Memory — so as I think may best convey an idea of his peculiar character and worth — by quoting a favourite phrase of his own — "Love him, for he loved Nature."

Allan is buried at Kensal Green, under a monument of granite, and his admirable wife now rests by his side. I have wished they were sleeping in some green graveyard in Nithsdale.