Friday, 23 January 2015

Ancell Stronach: Artist to Artiste (and Amateur Zoologist)

While looking through the  volume 2 of Water Life magazine I came across a report which stated that an Ancell Stronach had given a talk on keeping reptiles to the Scottish Aquarium Society on 3 February 1937. I had a very vague recollection of having seen that unusual name before. A search showed that I had come across it. He was a member of the founding committee of the Zoological Society of Glasgow in 1936 that established the now-defunct Glasgow Zoo. That’s where I had seen the name but the search came up with a fascinating story.

From a group photograph of the
first committee of the Glasgow
Zoological Society

Alexander Ancell Stronach was born in Dundee on 6 December 1901. He trained at the Glasgow School of Art, where he won prizes including a travelling scholarship*, and became a noted painter, church decorator and stained glass designer. He became Professor of Mural Painting in Glasgow and was elected as an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1934. He earned his living at this time mainly as a portrait painter.

Ancell Stronach by Andrew Law (1873-1967)
Glasgow School of Art Archives

Animals must have got into his head because he was known to have a large menagerie. He was also a circus fan, and he resigned from the Glasgow School of Art in 1939 to be a variety performer on the stage. His act involved birds and was billed as Ancell’s 40 Painted Pigeons, and he toured Britain along with his wife (Gwendoline Eleanor Cunningham but known as Joan) who was a professional acrobat. They married in Swindon in 1941.

This is a report from the Glasgow Herald of 3 September 1940:

They lived in south London in the 1950s and then Gillingham in Kent. A former pet-shop owner in Gillingham from whom Ancell Stronach bought supplies reported his great kindness in providing an interest-free loan during hard times for the shop. At that time he kept Barbary Doves (the ‘pigeons’ of his act), several species of stick insect and also bred fancy mice. He continued to paint and gave works to friends and relatives.

As well as portraits and murals he painted religious works and abstract works. Some of his output can be seen here and here. His work is being increasingly appreciated the the prices of his paintings at auction are rising, on reaching £32,000. I particularly admire his abstracts, some of which have a biological character.

Ancell Stronach died in 1981, aged 80; his wife in Kent in 1996, aged 81.

*He travelled to London from Gibraltar arriving on 26 July 1929 as a 2nd class passenger on the P&O Ship Rajputana. His address in Glasgow was 10 Berkeley Terrace.

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