Pioneering art historians and writers, William George Archer and his wife Mildred Agnes Bell, found inspiration for their life-long vocation in India, where they lived for over a decade between 1932-1946. In the fifteen years before Indian Independence, William Archer served in the Indian Civil Service where he developed a passion for Indian art and began a collection of fine Pahari paintings. On returning to England, the Archers pursued parallel careers, collaborating on books in which William supplied a ‘dash of poetic flair’ that complemented Mildred’s methodical prose. Simultaneously, they began to put together a truly remarkable private collection of Indian paintings, drawings, and prints.
In 1948, William Archer took charge of the Indian Department at the Victoria and Albert Museum. During his 18-year tenure as Keeper and Keeper Emeritus, the museum’s collection of Rajput paintings was dramatically enlarged. His tireless research and collection resulted in insights that are catalogued in his magnum opus, Indian Paintings from the Punjab Hills (1973). In 1954, the India Office Library invited Mildred Archer to catalogue a ‘few miscellaneous Indian Paintings’. The task was expected to take only a few weeks but led to twenty-five years based at the library. Their combined careers and publications significantly helped shape our understanding of artistic activity in and on India in the period from the late 18th to the early 20th Century, as is shown by the dense bibliography of their writings. Their approach to collecting represents a rare blend of enthusiasm for a culture and a scholarly encyclopedic knowledge of their subject.
Whilst in India, whenever possible Mildred joined her husband in his small, tented camps as he travelled his domain. They described vividly in what became a joint autobiography, India Served and Observed (1994), their love of India’s changing seasons and natural world. Both relished the varied landscape of the different arts of Bihar where they spent most of their time, whether in the flat lands of the Mithila region where William discovered the hidden folk-painting traditions of Madhubani, or the greener hills of Chota Nagpur, where he explored and began to write on the culture and literature of the Uraon, Santhal and other tribal communities.
Although William and Mildred are best known for their interest in Indian Miniatures and Anglo Indian paintings they also studied and wrote about the work of Contemporary Indian artists, forming close associations with many of the painters. In 1971, William published Kalighat Paintings and was one of the first critics to recognise Kalighat paintings as important forerunners to the modernist movement, both in India and the West. William also wrote about Rabindranath Tagore encountering the European interest in abstract art and similar non-deliberate ways of achieving images.
We are delighted that this group of paintings so carefully chosen by two remarkable scholars should be offered for sale at Sotheby’s. This collection is a tribute to Mildred and William Archer’s long and happy relationship with the Indian subcontinent which they had come to know so intimately.