Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay


CUNNINGHAM, ALLAN (1784–1842), Scottish poet and man of letters, was born at Keir, Dumfriesshire, on the 7th of December 1784, and began life as a stone mason’s apprentice. His father was a neighbour of Burns at Ellisland, and Allan with his brother James visited James Hogg, the Ettrick shepherd, who became a friend to both. Cunningham contributed some songs to Roche’s Literary Recreations in 1807, and in 1809 he collected old ballads for Robert Hartley Cromek’s Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song; he sent in, however, poems of his own, which the editor inserted, even though he may have suspected their real authorship. In 1810 Cunningham went to London, where he supported himself chiefly by newspaper reporting till 1814, when he became clerk of the works in the studio of Francis Chantrey, retaining this employment till the sculptor’s death in 1841. He meanwhile continued to be busily engaged in literary work. Cunningham’s prose is often spoiled by its misplaced and too ambitious rhetoric; his verse also is often over-ornate, and both are full of mannerisms. Some of his songs, however, hold a high place among British lyrics. A Wet Sheet and a Flowing Sea is one of the best of our sea-songs, although written by a landsman; and many other of Cunningham’s songs will bear comparison with it. He died on the 30th of October 1842.

He was married to Jean Walker, who had been servant in a house where he lived, and had five sons and one daughter. Joseph Davey Cunningham (1812–1851) entered the Bengal Engineers, and is known by his History of the Sikhs (1849). Sir Alexander Cunningham (1814–1893) also entered the Bengal Engineers, attaining the rank of major-general; he was director general of the Indian Archaeological Survey (1870–1885), and wrote an Ancient Geography of India (1871) and Coins of Medieval India (1894). Peter Cunningham (1816–1869) published several topographical and biographical studies, of which the most important are his Handbook of London (1849) and The Life of Drummond of Hawthornden (1833). Francis Cunningham (1820–1875) joined the Indian army, and published editions of Ben Jonson (1871), Marlowe (1870) and Massinger (1871).

The works of Allan Cunningham include Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1829–1833); Sir Marmaduke Maxwell (1820), a dramatic poem; Traditionary Tales of the Peasantry (1822), several novels (Paul Jones, Sir Michael Scott, Lord Roldan); the Maid of Elwar, a sort of epic romance; the Songs of Scotland (1825); Biographical and Critical History of the Literature of the Last Fifty Years (1833); an edition of The Works of Robert Burns, with notes and a life containing a good deal of new material (1834); Biographical and Critical Dissertations affixed to Major’s Cabinet Gallery of Pictures; and Life, Journals and Correspondence of Sir David Wilkie, published in 1843. An edition of his Poems and Songs was issued by his son, Peter Cunningham, in 1847.

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& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

CUNNINGHAM, Allan (1784-1842) by David Stewart

In 1911, Allan Cunningham was a minor figure known for a few poems that appeared in anthologies. Cunningham remains a relatively minor taste in 2022. It is a rare Romantic scholar who has read his novels, and his work is infrequently included in anthologies of Romantic-period literature. Yet those elements mentioned in the 1910-1911 Encyclopædia Britannica—his connections with Robert Burns and James Hogg, the early ballad collections, his work with Francis Chantrey, even the future careers of his sons—combined with elements omitted in the relatively short Britannica entry, suggest Cunningham’s readiness to enter more fully into the mainstream of Romantic studies.

Allan Cunningham
Brockedon, William. Allan Cunningham. 1832, © National Portrait Gallery, London Original image

The most important biographical source on remains the 1875 Life of Allan Cunningham by the Rev. David Hogg, a valuable book that sheds light on Cunningham’s social worlds in Dumfriesshire and London. Cunningham is often categorised as a labouring-class writer. This is essentially accurate, and Cunningham took pride in claiming a shared peasant background with Burns and Hogg. But Cunningham’s class is complicated. His father was a farmer trained in the improved agricultural methods of the era. He placed his sons in solid jobs after a brief training in a local Dame’s School. Cunningham was apprenticed to a stonemason, and the trade served him well. He drew on that skill in his later work at Francis Chantrey’s sculpture workshop, where he played a central role in the production of the works of the most famous sculptor of the period. Chantrey came from a similar social background, and, like Cunningham, was in London intent on establishing his financial and social position. Both succeeded in that aim, with Chantrey being knighted in 1835.

Cunningham had ample access to books as a young man and was soon an aspiring writer. His earliest poems (1806-8) were for Eugenius Roche’s Literary Recreations and the Scots Magazine. He used the Ossianic pseudonym Hidallan, the first of many playful noms de plume. The founding event of his literary career was Robert Hartley Cromek’s arrival in Dumfriesshire looking for traditional ballads. Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song (1810) contained works that posed as ancient but were in fact written by Cunningham. The writer of the Britannica entry wonders if Cromek may have suspected their real authorship, a suspicion that can today be confirmed. This was one of many occasions in which Cunningham would work closely with editors and publishers to aim at the latest literary fashion. The collection also sets the tone for Cunningham’s career in its intensive focus on his home region of South-West Scotland.

Cunningham’s early years in London saw him establishing his networks. He worked (like William Hazlitt and Charles Dickens) as a parliamentary reporter, and he later produced a collection of Songs: Chiefly in the Rural Language of Scotland (1813). In 1819, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine published his first short stories. They display Cunningham’s facility with characterisation, his sense of humour, his broad knowledge of his local region, and his tendency to allow stories to spill beyond their expected formal limits. His greatest success was at the London Magazine, starting in December 1820 with a series of Traditional Tales of the English and Scottish Peasantry. Tim Killick’s 2012 edition of the collected book version (first published 1822) is the best entry point for those new to Cunningham today. The London Magazine was proudly metropolitan, but it had a strong interest in rural life and literature, most famously via its association with John Clare. Cunningham’s tales had the byline Lammerlea, Cumberland, advertising their provincial authenticity. But this was an acknowledged fiction; Cunningham lived in Pimlico and loved the sociability of the magazine culture where he was, being tall, nicknamed The Dwarf. The tales frequently begin with an outsider entering a rural community. It is an appropriate move: Cunningham must have felt on the border socially and geographically, neither securely placed in the London literary world nor any longer fully connected to his Dumfriesshire home. It was a feeling of class uncertainty shared by many in the 1820s.

With increasing scholarly interest in the print culture of the 1820s and 1830s, Cunningham offers a valuable indication of its vitality. Cunningham experimented fruitfully in the market, producing a play, Sir Marmaduke Maxwell (1822), and a poem in Spenserians, The Maid of Elvar (1832). His 1825 The Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern includes an insightful essay detailing the development of the Scots language, literature, and the religious and folk beliefs and customs of the rural poor. He was in frequent demand as a contributor to annuals such as the Literary Souvenir and The Bijou and periodicals like the New Monthly Magazine. His connections in the literary and art worlds suited him well to being an editor of an annual, The Anniversary for 1829 (published late 1828). Cunningham published three novels, all subtitled A Romance: Paul Jones (1826), Sir Michael Scott (1828) and Lord Roldan (1836). They are suggestive of the fertility of his imagination while tending to confirm the view held in the entry that his rhetoric could be mannered and misplaced and too ambitious, or Walter Scott’s opinion that Cunningham was a genius who lacked only the tact of knowing where to stop. What the novels lack in plotting they make up for in range and energy, and they contain much that will interest scholars of transnationalism, landscape, national politics, and folk culture.

Towards the end of his career, Cunningham established himself as a critic of literature and fine art. His series of essays on literature, first published in The Athenaeum (1830-1834), is one of the first attempts to give shape to what we now know as Romanticism. His 1834 Works of Burns retains a certain notoriety because he introduced errors that scholars today are still unpicking, including his fictionalisation of parts of Burns’s work. His highly popular works of art criticism and biography include unusually early praise of William Blake’s wild but noble imaginations. The painter for whom he felt the greatest affinity was David Wilkie, whose scenes of rural Scotland so closely resemble Cunningham’s stories.

The Britannica entry devotes much to an account of the careers of Cunningham’s sons. This feels like short measure for such a varied and successful writer. But the careers they occupied in the Victorian imperial state are markers of just how far Cunningham had come. There are other and more important legacies that Cunningham has left us, legacies that scholars are beginning to bring to light today. But the entry is right to note a social and economic legacy that was enabled in large part by his literary labours that took him from, and imaginatively returned him to, Keir parish in Dumfriesshire.

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