Gregor Ian Smith

Artist, Author, Illustrator and Teacher- A truly creative man and passionate supporter of Scottish Arts
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Gregor Ian Smith was born in Helensburgh on the 18th April 1907, one of three children, a sister Mary and a brother Harold, who sadly died in infancy. Perhaps inspired by the artistic talents of his father, John, a painter, decorator, artist and musician, the young Gregor soon displayed signs of the creativity that was to serve him throughout his life. It is said that Gregor was drawing and painting at the age of three, so it appeared inevitable that he would follow his love of art through his school days.

Following his education in Helensburgh, Gregor studied art at Glasgow School of Art from 1926 through to 1931. He was awarded a diploma in drawing and painting, which in his final year was endorsed, in recognition of his outstanding academic achievement. In addition to this he was awarded the Newbery Medal (named after Fra. Henry Newbery, the Headmaster and Director of the Glasgow School of Art from 1885 to 1918 and which includes a design that shows "a palace on a hill endowed by fame")

After finishing his studies at the Art School he moved into teaching and eventually into lecturing through the Scottish Arts Council which he continued right up until his death in 1985. Gregor travelled all over Scotland giving talks, demonstrations and leading debates on art and education.

At this time he married Kathleen Graham, a fellow teacher at Hartfield in Dumbarton, and during a long and happy marriage they raised five children - Graham, Charles, Campbell, Kirsteen and Duncan.

It was during the early years of raising his family that Gregor revealed another creative string to his bow, that of creative writing. He started writing for the legendary Kathleen Garscadden - “Auntie Kathleen” of Scottish Children’s Hour and Scotland’s first radio star – for the much loved show that was responsible for launching the career of the great Scottish entertainers such as Stanley Baxter and Rikki Fulton.

Gregor was to prove particularly skilled in writing for young people, and he authored a series of children’s stories, many of which were published by Blackie & Son Ltd (the publishing company of Walter Blackie of Hill House fame) and were illustrated by Gregor himself. Originally conceived for his children, Gregor’s stories featured many colourful characters and were bright in design and easy to read. Button: The story of a puppy, Willie Whiskers, The Story of Tatterjack, Bill the Budgie, and The House in the Tree are just some of the many titles that sold around the globe.

Gregor never moved from the Helensburgh area, and was a first hand witness to its evolution over his 78 years, and was particularly sceptical of the ‘reputation’ that Helensburgh had gained as a ‘centre for the arts’.

He wrote in 1975, that “Helensburgh may have been a small community but it was a lively one. By its support for cultural enterprises it earned for itself a high place in the list of towns fostering the arts, a reputation which was not altogether justified. Subscription concerts and lectures by famous groups and personalities were well attended — at first. But a substantial number were there under false pretences, ready to fall asleep at the drop of a baton, forced into attendance by wives with social aspirations.”

One such society that certainly proved the exception was the Helensburgh & District Arts Club. Formed as a result of the efforts a group of local artists in 1951 who were determined to create a formal society, the club continues to the flourish to this day. Gregor, rather unsurprisingly, was one of the ‘founding fathers’ along with Charles Taylor, Elspeth Beaton, J. Carlaw, May Howieson and George Burgess. Charles Taylor served as the club’s first President for three years and then handed the position over to Gregor, described as ‘the club’s backbone’, who served for a remarkable twenty two years.

Aside from his love of the arts, Gregor’s heart lay with the area around Glen Fruin, his home for many years after the purchase and renovation of the Old Schoolhouse close to the Black Bridge. After the death of his wife in 1978 Gregor continued to live in the Glen, raising a small herd of cattle and tending to his chickens when he was not travelling, lecturing and painting. His love of the Glen led to him erecting the monument to commemorate the battle of Glen Fruin, the famous battle that took place on 7th February 1603 between the Colquhouns and the MacGregors.

Gregor had always been plagued with asthma, a condition that prevented him from active service during the war, and it eventually to lead to his death. He died of a heart attack in 1985 following a severe bout of asthma.

A portrait of Gregor, was undertaken by the artist Jon Peaty in 1980 at a single seventy five minute sitting in the old East Clyde Street Community centre. The painting was purchased by the Helensburgh and District Art Club, is housed in the library and is now managed by the Anderson Trust, which holds a collection of local interest artworks, a Trust that Gregor himself served as trustee of.

Gregor’s contribution to the support of the arts is still fondly remembered by the presentation, at the opening of the annual Bearsden Art Club exhibition, of the ‘Gregor Ian Smith Award’ which focuses on a different subject or theme each year. Previous winners have included: Joyce Borland, Gillian Allan and Annis Anderson.