ALLANSON, JOHN, wood-engraver; b. c. 1813 in England; his wife, Elizabeth ——, and a child predeceased him; d. 11 Feb. 1853 in Toronto.
Where or under whom John Allanson trained as a wood-engraver is not known. Many reference books repeat the assertion of a later associate in Leipzig (German Democratic Republic) that he had been a pupil of the renowned Newcastle engraver Thomas Bewick, but Allanson was only about 15 when Bewick died in 1828 after years of illness and semi-retirement. Allanson was perhaps finishing his apprenticeship when an illustrated weekly, the Penny Magazine, was launched in London in 1832. Its immediate popularity produced a flock of imitators in England and abroad, and a demand for engravers who had been trained by Bewick or a pupil of his. One such imitator, the Musée des Familles, launched in Paris in 1833, carried during its first year 20 engravings signed by Allanson. They reveal that, while still a youth, he had already mastered a variety of styles and had the skill to retain the spontaneity of sketches by Paul Gavarni and Henry Monnier, to render finely detailed vignettes in Bewick’s miniature style, and to reproduce the subtle gradations of tone found in Salon paintings. However, after about two or three years, growing nationalist sentiment increasingly favoured the rising generation of French engravers and illustrators, and Allanson departed for the United States.
Once settled in New York, Allanson found little difficulty at first in finding commissions. In May 1836 he attracted critical approval in the New York Mirror for a frame of vignettes shown at the spring exhibition of the city’s National Academy of Design. Three topographical views by Allanson had already appeared in the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge (Boston), and were followed by ten illustrations in the French narrative style to accompany a serialized short story published in the Mirror at the end of 1837. His residence in New York, however, lasted at most four years. He returned to England, probably because he could not find continuing work in New York, where the art of wood-engraving was not yet highly developed.
Allanson’s name next appears in Leipzig in 1843 when a magazine called the Illustrirte Zeitung, launched that year, began carrying regular contributions by him of portraits, reproductions of old master paintings, architectural views, and glimpses of current events. He and other engravers had been lured from London by the Leipzig publisher Georg Wigand, and Allanson later became the principal engraver of the romantic illustrations by the artist Adrian Ludwig Richter which appeared in Wigand’s collections of German myths and folk tales. But history was to repeat itself for John Allanson. National pride in the group of accomplished native engravers coupled with uneasiness over the English engravers’ seeming obsession with technique at the expense of feeling brought an end to his career in Germany by 1848.
One can only speculate why Allanson, now about 35, decided that Upper Canada would be an appropriate residence for one of his skill and experience. As a wood-engraver, he had been trained to reproduce the form and spirit of an artist’s sketch, and when, as in Germany, the necessary equipment, materials, and technical assistance were put at his disposal, wood-engraving in his hands became indeed “this beautiful art,” as a contemporary editorial had described it. In Upper Canada the conditions would be far from ideal. Allanson may have chosen the province to avoid the relative anonymity and lack of independence that would have been his lot in a large London firm. Although local publishers had for some years made scattered attempts to appease their readers’ growing appetite for illustrations by inserting the occasional cut, these were usually copied from imported publications. In 1848, when he arrived in Toronto, the tiny audience for Upper Canadian publications translated into less than full-time employment for one wood-engraver, Frederick C. Lowe. However, to an immigrant British wood-engraver who was prepared to establish roots, and if necessary work at a variety of jobs in the publishing and printing trades, Toronto, already an active publishing community, offered security for Allanson and his family.
Information about the four to five years Allanson spent in Toronto before his death is scanty, but it suggests that he did indeed draw upon his past experience in publishing to establish a solid future for himself. In March 1849, giving a commercial address on King Street, he placed an advertisement in the city’s British Colonist offering for sale a set of steel engravings by William Hogarth, and another of Paris and its environs. By late spring he had set up his own lithographic press. In November he was elected a member of the Toronto Mechanics’ Institute, which maintained a reading-room; it may not have been a coincidence that at this time he also began business as a subscription agent for periodicals.
From the first, Allanson undoubtedly developed working relationships with established figures in the Toronto publishing world. His name is not mentioned on the topographical plan of Toronto prepared by Sandford Fleming* and published by Hugh Scobie, but Fleming recorded in 1849 that he traced the plan on a lithographic stone at Allanson’s premises. It included a border in the form of a series of public buildings engraved by Allanson after drawings by architect Thomas Young, and was completed in time for the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. A reviewer in Toronto, praising its execution, remarked that “this new plan of the city is, in every respect, Canadian.” In a land of recent immigrants, Allanson, three years after his arrival, finally was as much at home as other citizens.
It was customary in Upper Canada at that time for amateur and professional artists alike to have their work viewed by the public, and judged for prizes, at the annual Upper Canada Provincial Exhibition. The first prize in wood-engraving in the fine arts department was taken by Allanson on three occasions between 1849 and 1852. By 1850 Allanson was renting domestic and business premises on Yonge Street, beside Holy Trinity Church, from which address he advertised in Scobie’s Canadian almanac for 1851 a wide range of services as an “engraver on wood”: “Historical Subjects, Public Buildings, Hotels, Official and Municipal Seals, Arms, &c., &c.” He evidently attracted commissions, and illustrations with “Allanson” signed in the block began to be seen with some frequency. In the same almanac, Young’s drawings of a painting and decorating shop and a combined livery stable and bowling saloon are precisely documented in a pair of full-page advertisements engraved by Allanson. The Canadian Agriculturist, of Toronto, employed him in 1852 to do small cuts copied from the American press, and for a view of the provincial exhibition grounds. The unaccustomed “Allanson del & sc” on an engraving of the newly erected Trinity College, Toronto, by architect Kivas Tully*, acknowledges his responsibility for both the original design and the wood-block.
Allanson returned to working on magazines when Thomas Maclear* made illustrations a feature of his Anglo-American Magazine, launched in July 1852 in Toronto. A monthly view of a provincial town printed on a separate page, a fashion plate, and one other engraving, usually of a literary subject, were Allanson’s responsibility. Proof impressions of these engravings, including views of Kingston, Hamilton, and Brockville, were “very much admired” at the provincial exhibition that year, and were republished posthumously as separate plates in some later impressions of William Henry Smith*’s Canada: past, present and future. The last of Allanson’s contributions to the Anglo-American appeared in the October 1852 issue, and in November he was succeeded by Frederick C. Lowe. John Allanson may already have encountered the ill health that would lead to his death the following February.
Having to substitute softer local woods for the more desirable European boxwood, and probably having to make do with unsuitable printing-presses and paper and with pressmen unaccustomed to printing from wood-blocks, Allanson could not have been satisfied that the impressions made from his Canadian wood-blocks did justice to his training, skill, and reputation. To earn a living he must have routinely undertaken commercial assignments such as seals, small advertising cuts, and letterheads, and in much of this work he was a typical engraver of his time. But his peripatetic career was characteristic of only a small number of English engravers who carried the secrets of Thomas Bewick’s techniques to receptive audiences in other countries.
AO, MU 1050, diary, 26 June 1849 (transcript). MTL, Toronto, Mechanics Institute papers, G4 (General accounts, 1849–58): 29. Toronto Necropolis and Crematorium, Reg. of burials (Elizabeth Allanson, d. 23 Dec. 1851; (child) Allanson, d. 12 July 1852; John Allanson, d. 11 Feb. 1853). Canadian Agriculturist (Toronto), 1 (1849): 281; 2 (1850): 235; 4 (1852): 292, 311, 365. British Colonist (Toronto), 27 March 1849, 29 Aug. 1851, 15 Feb. 1853. Globe, “Pictorial Suppl.,” December 1856: 3. Canadian almanac, 1851: 78–79, 83. J. F. Hoff, Adrian Ludwig Richter, maler und radierer . . . (2nd ed., Freiburg, [German Federal Republic], 1922), 405. M. F. Williamson, “‘Description fails . . .’; periodical illustration in 19th century Ontario,” The art and pictorial press in Canada; two centuries of art magazines, ed. Karen McKenzie and M. F. Williamson (Toronto, 1979), 11–19. Patricia Stone, “The publishing history of W. H. Smith’s Canada: past, present and future: a preliminary investigation,” Biblio. Soc. of Canada, Papers (Toronto), 19 (1980): 38–68.