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Indian Miniatures from the Collection of
William and Mildred Archer
William Archer, "Bill" to his many friends, is well known today as the author of many books on Indian miniatures, notably the two-volume Indian Paintings from the Punjab Hills published in 1973, which still remains the most thorough resource on the subject. Yet his life as a scholar in this field was his second career, taken up almost by chance.
He and Mildred ("Tim") met when Bill was already through Cambridge and studying Hindi at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, on his way to successfully applying to join the Indian Colonial Service (ICS) in 1931. Three years later they married and Tim travelled out to India to join Bill in his posting to the province of Bihar in north-east India. By his own choice he was in the more remote areas where, as noted by their friend Giles Eyre, "it was sometimes wiser to follow Indian precedent, while keeping within British law. In such a way, Bill chose to be guided by his own moral sense - even if colonial tradition sanctioned otherwise". They spent considerable amounts of time among the tribal peoples of the region, with Bill in time publishing translations of their poetry while Tim learned Hindi. In time their postings changed, although remaining within the region; Bill was appointed Deputy Commissioner and District Magistrate in Patna and then Dumka before his final posting in the uplands occupied by the Naga tribes where they stayed until a little after Independence. In their period in India both Bill and Tim already had chances to appreciate the art of the region. Just before the end of their time there Bill published a small work on primitive Indian sculpture, The Vertical Man. At about the same time Tim published Patna Painting, showing her increased interest in the same field.
1948 saw their return to an England that appeared very grim in contrast, particularly in the years immediately after the War. After a short while however he was recommended to apply for and obtained a ten-year role as Keeper of the Indian Section at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It had been recommended as a position where "life was by no means arduous, lunch hours were infinitely extendable and the director was hardly ever there". Having decided to take up the challenge however Bill approached it with renewed energy. As he says in his memoirs ,"unless one worked at it, the post would have no meaning. Begrudge time, hold oneself back, and the job went sour". He began by sorting out the collection, weeding out a number of items which were mostly accepted by other institutions. He decided that his main main area of specialisation should be miniatures, where the museum's collection was particularly strong, and an area which had been considerably enhanced by the donation by P.C. Manuk and Miss G.M.Coles, which was shortly to be added to by the purchase of miniatures from Sir William Rothenstein. Thus began a very fruitful time, one which he referred to later as "the happiest period of my life". His work concentrated particularly on the schools of the various kingdoms in the Punjab Hills, attempting to separate out the various elements so that not everything was attributed to Kangra. Friendship with M.S.Randhawa, which sprang from the latter's reading of an early publication by Bill on the subject, led to a series of visits around the region, studying the collections that still remained with royal families, as well as looking closely at the topography.
In 1954 Bill was asked to catalogue miniatures at the India Office Library, having been told that there were not many. He did not have the time, but recommended that Tim be asked to do the job. Thus began a task which had her searching through old files, shelves, cases and envelopes, unearthing and then cataloguing the miniatures. What had been billed as a job that would only take a few weeks, eventually lasted for twenty-five years. Tim's catalogues, partly written with Toby Falk, are as important in the field as any, forming a magnificent record of one of the most impressive collections of paintings to have been formed in the West.
The Archers' work and devotion to the field of Indian Paintings was not just academic. While in India they had made a point of visiting artists and collectors, thoroughly enjoying discussions about artistic movements and aesthetics with artists such as Rabindranath Tagore and Jamini Roy. Their 1943 portait in the bungalow at Dumka reproduced above shows one of Jamini Roy's earlier paintings on the shelf behind them. Similarly they met a number of Hindu and Muslim collectors of paintings and, beginning while they were still in India, began to buy on their own account. It was a period of great opportunity for anybody interested in the field, with a number of good collections appearing on the market. Thus the collection has a number of paintings from series which are mostly now in museums, such as the early Mewar Bhagvata Purana paintings and the illustration from the sixteenth century aur Canda (lots 78-80). As is not surprising however the strength of the collection is in paintings from the Pahari schools that Bill spent so much of his later professional life researching. As Giles Eyre noted, "a discussion about attribution of any problem picture would often lead, after supper, to a session on the living room carpet. .... riddles of this kind were treated with as much enjoyment as seriousness. Bill was the instigator of disrespect for past opinions while Tim was initially more circumspect. They worked perfectly together as a team, both with a strong aversion to academic humbug". His unstuffy response to the paintings is clearly demonstrated in some of his captions to his own paintings. Thus lot 54 is described as "Here is the very essence of clammy snake-hood, succulent, soft, and in its corpselike pallor posessing a slimy majesty which takes it out of this world". Or with respect to Raja Shamsher Sen (lot 74) "Here the great lazy figure, ...., his oafish face puffing out spirals of hookah smoke, looks vacantly at the old courtier who respectfully stands before him". He was certainly not an author who had to praise his own paintings, thus "The girl musician," (lot 56) "who stands against a tepid yellow bacjkground, has the vapid staidness associated with many members of her profession". From the portraits of rulers to the lyrical Basohli depiction of Krishna and the gopis (lot 49) and the magnificent Mankot depiction of Krishna pursued by Kaljaman (lot 57), this collection goes some way to demonstrate the breadth and variety of the paintings of this area. Many of the paintings in the collection feature in one or more of the many publications on Indian Painting that Bill and Tim wrote, demonstrating how their hobby was also a part of their professional life. For the last ten years almost all these paintings have been on load to the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery. It is with great pleasure that we can now offer them for sale at Chirstie's.
Unless stated otherwise, all quotes in this introduction are taken from William and Mildred Archer's India served and Observed, London, 1994 and its introduction by Giles Eyre.