Phillip Alexander Clancey was born on 26 September 1917 in Glasgow, Scotland. His family subsequently moved to London and then to Switzerland, but by age seven he was back attending school in Glasgow and then studying at the Glasgow School of Art. He served with the Allied forces in Sicily and Italy during World War II, escaping death by the narrowest of margins and being deafened in one ear by an artillery explosion. In 1948–1949, he accompanied Col. Richard Meinertzhagen on an ornithological expedition to Yemen, Aden, Somali, Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Africa.
Clancey immigrated to South Africa in August 1950 to take up the post of Curator of the Natal Museum in Pietermaritzburg. He was Director of the Durban Museum and Art Gallery from 1 January 1952 until his retirement on 25 September 1982, and then continued as a research associate of the museum until his death.
Clancey wrote extensively about the taxonomy of African birds, naming some 200 subspecies of southern African birds; several avian subspecies have been named after him by others in his honor. His books include Catalogue of the Birds of the South African Subregion (1965–1972), Handlist of the Birds of Southern Mozambique (1970–1972, for which he was awarded the prestigious Gill Memorial Medal of the Southern African Ornithological Society, now BirdLife South Africa), The Birds of Natal and Zululand(1964), The Gamebirds of Southern Africa (1967), The Rare Birds of Southern Africa (1985), and Kingfishers of Sub-Saharan Africa (1992). He was the chief editor of the S.A.O.S. Checklist of Southern African Birds (1980) and a coauthor of the second volume of Atlas of Speciation of African Birds (1978). He also contributed to The Atlas of Southern African Birds (1997). Other publications total more than 530.
He served as President of the Southern African Ornithological Society and as the long-standing Chairman of its List Committee. He was also a longstanding Chairman of the Natal Bird Club (now BirdLife Port Natal) during the club's formative years, served as President of the Southern African Museums Association and was awarded a Fellowship by the Museums Association in London. He was elected a Corresponding Fellow of the American Ornithologists' Union in 1975. The University of Natal conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Science in 1981.
Clancey's skill in the preparation of bird skins was renowned. The Museum's collection, the third largest in Africa (some 32,000 bird study skins) many collected during his 26 major expeditions, is widely acknowledged as the finest on the continent. His trips to Mozambique resulted in the largest collection of material from that poorly known region. His discovery of the Lemon-breasted Canary, a species new to science, and of the southern Mozambique population of the Olive-headed Weaver were particular highlights. His success is reflected by the eminent ornithologists who have served there during and after his tenure, including Walter Lawson, Richard Brooke, Clive Quickelberge, Ian Sinclair, John Mendelsohn, and Aldo Berruti.
His artist talents are evident in the many bird paintings presented in his books and in the dioramas viewed by several million visitors to the Durban Natural Science Museum. Some of the dioramas were repainted up to six times until they matched his exacting standards. His avian portraits remain in high demand.
Clancey died in Durban on 18 July 2001. His portrait can be found in R.J. Dowsett's memorial in Ibis 144:369–370. Clancey was a rare combination of scientist, author, artist and administrator. His lifetime of meticulous dedication serves as an example for others.