The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler

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William Allan, 1782-1850

Nationality: Scottish
Date of Birth: 1782
Place of Birth: Edinburgh
Date of Death: 1850
Place of Death: Edinburgh


Sir William Allan was a Scottish history painter.


Allan studied under John Graham at the Trustees’ Academy in Edinburgh. There he met David Wilkie, whom he followed to London to continue his studies. In 1805 he left England for St Petersburg. He learnt Russian, and spent many years touring Tartary, Circassia and Turkey, making studies of the traditional dress and landscapes. He began collecting costumes, armoury and other potential studio props.

On his return to Edinburgh in 1814 Allan began exhibiting his exotic, Oriental paintings. However, encouraged by Wilkie and Walter Scott he began to look to Scottish history for his subject matter, e.g. The Murder of Archbishop Sharpe (1821; untraced). He became known for the accuracy of the period costume and setting in his works. The Edinburgh publisher Constable commissioned him to illustrate an edition of Scott’s Waverley novels, published in 1820.

In 1826 Allan was appointed Master of the Trustees’ Academy. He was elected A.R.A. in 1825 and R.A. in 1835. He spent some time in the late 1820s travelling in Italy, Greece and Turkey, returning to Scotland in 1830. In 1832, the year of Scott’s death, he executed a series of watercolours of the interiors of Abbotsford. In 1834 he travelled to Spain and Morocco, inspiring his return to exotic subject-matter. In 1838 he was elected President of the Royal Scottish Academy, and in 1842 he was knighted.

In 1844 Allan revisited Russia, where he produced several paintings for Tsar Nicholas I. There he was introduced to the Whistler family by a Mr Miller. Anna McNeill Whistler noted in her diary that when Allan spoke of painting, the eyes of her young son shone (Diary, New York Public Library). At the time, JW was having private artistic tuition from Alexander Ossipovich Karetsky. When JW's drawings were shown to Allan, he declared that they showed 'uncommon genius'.


Caw, J. L., Scottish Painting: Past and Present, 1620–1908, Edinburgh, 1908; Mumford, Elizabeth, Whistler's Mother: the Life of Anna McNeill Whistler, Boston, (Mass.), 1939; Cursiter, S., Scottish Art to the Close of the Nineteenth Century, London, 1949; Wood, Christopher, Dictionary of Victorian Painters, Woodbridge, 1971; Irwin, D. and F. Irwin, Scottish Painters at Home and Abroad, 1700–1900, London, 1975; Fleming, Gordon, The Young Whistler 1834-66, London, Boston, Sydney, 1978; Macmillan, D., Scottish Art, 1460–1990, Edinburgh, 1990; 'William Allan', The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy, (accessed 12 July 2002).