About Alexander Croall


When the Smith Institute (now the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum) was founded from the bequest of artist Thomas Stuart Smith (1815-69), the appointment of the first custodian of its collections was to be a consideration of the utmost importance.  Such an individual would be required to have a sound understanding of the arts, culture and natural history, and be absolutely committed to the development of the new institution.  All of these qualities - and more - were to be found in Alexander Croall, curator of the Smith from 1874 until his death in 1885.

Croall was born in 1804, a resident of Angus.  A keen student, he soon cultivated an eager interest in natural history - a rapidly developing area of scientific research throughout the nineteenth century.  He often embarked upon field trips throughout different areas of the country, and quickly established a thorough understanding of the botanical sciences.  He was respected by many other naturalists of the day, most notably his contemporary Charles Darwin (1809-82), the founder of modern evolutionary theory, with whom Croall conducted professional correspondence.  The young Alexander gradually created for himself a reputation of eminence as a natural historian, in tandem with his work as an industrious teacher at a provincial parish school near Montrose.

It was while still in his appointment as a schoolmaster that Croall was approached by Sit William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865), a University of Glasgow Professor and Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew from 1841, to organise and deliver sets of the Plants of Braemar for the personal herbarium of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1855.  This high-profile Royal assignment further enhanced Croall's reputation in the eyes of the scientific community in Victorian Britain.

Croall was ultimately to relinquish his position as a teacher to take up a new role: that of librarian to the Derby Museum and Herbarium.  His appointment came early in that institution's history, and he approached it with characteristic zeal and dedication.  Between 1859 and 1860, he produced what was to become his most enduring achievement, the four-volume textbook The Nature Printed British Sea-Weeds, which was compiled with the co-operation of William Grosart Johnstone.  Published by Bradbury and Evans in London, this book was the defining text on the subject of seaweed research at the time, and was to cement Croall's reputation as one of Britain's most influential algologists.  All four volumes contain beautifully-produced prints of the specimens under discussion, created by using actual samples of each strain of seaweed to match the pigments and texture of the natural plant in printed form.  The text is highly sought after by collectors today, especially when it is sold as a complete set of all four volumes.

Alexander Croall was appointed as the first curator to the Smith Institute in 1874, and made an immediate impact on the new museum and art gallery.  Historical accounts confirm that in addition to his scholarly talents, he was a well-liked and congenial figure who cared greatly about the role and reputation of the Smith.  Prominent Scottish writer Samuel Smiles (1812-1904), in his seminal text Men of Invention and Industry, described Croall as a 'remarkable man' whose custodianship of the Smith had led to the Institute becoming 'perhaps the best provincial museum and art gallery in Scotland'.

It was not only in his professional capacity that Croall achieved a high level of success; he formed valued friendships with individuals such as James Gilchrist (1813-85), founder of the James Gilchrist Lichen Collection at Dumfries Museum, and perhaps most notably David Buchan Morris (1867-1943), whose fascination with the Smith Institute was actively encouraged by Croall.  Morris was later to become Stirling Town Clerk, and his interest in the Smith was to continue throughout his adult life.

Croall organised a significant art exhibition at the Smith in 1878, in collaboration with Leonard Baker, an art teacher at Stirling High School, which ultimately led to the establishment of the Stirling Fine Art Association.  He was also instrumental in the foundation of the Stirling Field Club, to which he contributed his wholehearted support and - on occasion - his extensive scholarly talents, such as the presentation of his cerebral and well-attended paper 'Weeds: What They Are, and What to Do with Them' in 1883.

Alexander Croall died in 1885 after a long illness, and was succeeded as Smith curator by James Sword, a deputy Procurator Fiscal in Stirling Burgh.  A touching obituary to the late curator was published in The Scottish Naturalist (Series 2, Volume 2, 1885, pp.148-53).  However, his significant legacy continues to live on into the twenty-first century.  Croall's extensive contribution to botanical and algological science was featured in an exhibition at the University of Hawaii at Manoa Library in 2005, where the content of British Sea-Weeds was a prominently highlighted item.  Croall was also featured in Diarmid A. Finnegan's influential paper 'Natural History Societies in Late Victorian Scotland and the Pursuit of Local Civic Science', which appeared in The British Journal for the History of Science (Volume 38, Issue 1, March 2005).

There is little doubt that, even today, Alexander Croall's commitment and devotion to the aims of the Smith Institute continue to live on in his works.
  But for a closer insight into what life at the Smith Institute may have been like during his tenure, The Shadow in the Gallery considers the significant part that he played in the organisation during its early years - and the considerable legacy that he left to future generations.