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Cunningham, Allan

    Image Credit: ArtUK

    Full Name: Cunningham, Allan

    Other Names:

    • Allan Cunningham

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1784

    Date Died: 1842

    Place Born: Keir, Fife, Scotland, UK

    Place Died: London, Greater London, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): architecture (object genre), biography (general genre), British (modern), painting (visual works), and sculpture (visual works)


    Author of the five-volume Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects and a biography of the painter David Wilkie. Cunningham was born to John Cunningham (1743-1800) and Elizabeth Harley (Cunningham). He was born in the parish of Keir, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, UK. He was educated at Quarrelwood and apprenticed to James, his brother, as a stonemason. As a young man he witnessed Robert Burns recite “Tam O’shanter,” cementing a lifelong interest in poetry and Scottish song. He began writing poetry under the pseudonym “Hidallan” (a hero of Ossian’s) which were subsequently published in the magazine Literary Recreations in 1807. In 1809 he began forging ancient ballads and sending them to the compiler Robert Hartley Cromek (1771-1812) in London. The following year he traveled to London and published more songs. Through Cromek, Cunningham met other artists, including the sculptor Francis Chantrey (1781-1841). Cunningham worked as a parliamentary reporter during which time he married Jean Walker (1791-1864), a domestic he had met in Scotland, in London in 1811. He wrote for the Literary Gazette and published a volume of songs Songs, Chiefly in the Rural Language of Scotland, in 1813. In 1814 he became Chantrey’s secretary and confidant. While in Chantry’s employ, he continued to write for Blackwood’s Magazine and then the London Magazine. In 1822 he published the drama Sir Marmaduke Maxwell with some other pieces as well as Traditional Tales of the English and Scottish Peasantry. Four volumes of The Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern appeared in 1825. Romances, including Paul Jones (1826), Sir Michael Scott (1828) followed. In 1829 he started issuing his six-volume artistic biography, Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, as part of the Murray’s Family Library series. Written from his personal knowledge of many contemporary artists in a spare style (much different from his literary works), the set sold briskly. Between 1830 and 1834 he wrote literary history articles for The Athenaeum. In 1831 Cunningham met the philosopher and man of letters Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) in London. His eight-volume Works and Life of Burns appeared in 1834. Cunningham suffered a stroke in 1839. When Chantry died in 1841 Cunningham received a £3100 bequest. After completing his Life of Sir David Wilkie he suffered a second stroke in 1842 and died at his home. He is buried at Kensal Green. His son, Peter, edited the Wilkie work which appeared posthumously. Cunningham’s Lives appeared in a 3-volume edited by Mary Margaret Heaton appeared as Bohn’s Standard Library in 1879. New editions appeared in 1893 and 1908.

    Selected Bibliography

    The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters and Sculptors. 5 vols. London: Murray, 1829-1833; The Life of Sir David Wilkie, with his Journals, Tours, and Critical Remarks on Works of Art. 3 vols. London: J. Murray, 1843.


    Hogg, David. Life of Allan Cunningham with Selections from his Works and Correspondence. Dumfries: J. Anderson & Son, 1875; The Times (London) October 31 1842, p. 5 ; Hughes, G. E. H. The Life and Works of Allan Cunningham. Ph.D., Cambridge University, 1975.


    Contributors: Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen


    Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen. "Cunningham, Allan." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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