Artist and traveller. Born in Edinburgh, Allan attended the Drawing Academy established in Edinburgh by the Board of Trustees for Arts and Manufactures with Sir David Wilkie (1785 - 1841) and then completed his training in London. In 1805, Allan sailed for Prussia and St. Petersburg, where he painted for the Russian nobility, and from 1807 travelled in the Ukraine, Crimea and the Caucasus painting as he went. Returning home in 1814, Allan set up a studio in Edinburgh. He continued to paint scenes from Russian life, making use of a large number of artefacts he had brought back. He also began producing Scottish historical paintings, including scenes from the novels of Sir Walter Scott (1771 - 1832), who became a great supporter of Allan.
A key figure in Scottish art through the first half of the 19th Century, Allan did much to establish the Victorian enthusiasm for grand historical paintings. He is known for the detail and scale of his work and his often exotic subject matter. His works include The Black Dwarf (now in the National Gallery of Scotland), The Signing of the National Covenant in Greyfriars Kirkyard (in the City Art Centre, Edinburgh), John Knox admonishing Mary Queen of Scots (1823) and Regent Murray shot by Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh (1825).
In 1830, he visited Italy and Turkey, producing Constantinople Slave Market as a result. In 1834 He visited Spain and Morocco in 1834 and returned to St. Petersburg in 1841, where he was commissioned by the Tsar to paint Peter the Great teaching his Subjects the Art of Shipbuilding. Allan's work can also be seen today in the great Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
In 1835, Allan was elected to the Royal Academy in London. He served as President of the Royal Scottish Academy from 1838 and Queen's Limner in Scotland from 1841. He was knighted in 1842.
He died in Edinburgh and lies buried in Dean Cemetery. In 2001, the City Art Centre in Edinburgh mounted the first exhibition of Allan's paintings since 1851.