BOOK REVIEW / Bearers, Blimps, and jungly fruits: 'India Served and Observed' - William & Mildred Archer: BACSA, 9 pounds. Jan Morris on the enthralling memoirs of two remarkably clever servants of the Raj

THE ECHOES of Empire grow fainter every year - and sweeter. Gone are the thunderous titles like Our Vice-Regal Life In India, or Fire and Sword in the Sudan: the last of the imperial memoirs are above all conciliatory, if not actually apologetic. For myself, as an aesthetic imperialist, I rather miss the old superbia, but I concede that the last generation of the Empire-builders probably included the best of the lot - the nearest to Santayana's 'sweet, just, boyish masters'.

William ('Bill') Archer and his wife Mildred ('Tim') were scarcely typical of the breed, but their joint reminiscences - some parts by him, some by her - fascinatingly illustrate the time when the imperial conviction faded and the imperial careers proceeded unmistakeably towards early repatriation. Both the children of teachers, both highly intellectual (he had a First from Cambridge; she was a scholar of St Hilda's), they shared liberal if not socialist sympathies, and went to India in the Thirties well aware that their purposes must be to ease the way to Indian independence.

The Archers were scathing of British postures out there - the club mentality, the aloofness, the snobbery - but as a member of the Indian Civil Service, Bill found himself, nevertheless, faithfully honouring its traditions. Not only was he a diligent and efficient administrator, performing all the legendary functions of the white man in the field - judging people, taking censuses, coping with natural calamities, calming disputes, codifying tribal laws, advising elders: there came a time when, like so many before him, he found himself obliged to use violence to sustain the rule of imperial law - eight students were killed when, in 1942, Bill Archer authorised the police to open fire upon a demonstration in Patna.

So for all his good intentions he became 'Butcher' Archer after all, just as his memsahib, though so ardent a member of the Oxford Labour Club, was attended by all the obligatory retinue of faithful nannies, courteous cooks and loyal bearers. One might almost be back in the pages of Forty-One Years In India, by Field-Marshal The Lord Roberts (1897), were it not for the fact that the Archers were extremely clever people: I doubt if they were really any sweeter or kinder than hundreds of their contemporaries pilloried as Blimps and reactionaries, but they were perceptive enough to see through the illusory conventions of racism and ideology, and to develop an intimate interest in the affairs of the Indians themselves.

Not that they were especially original in this, either. Countless British officers in India devoted themselves, in the Napoleonic way, to anthropology, archaeology, zoology, botany or geographical studies: books like Risley's Gazetteer of Sikhim (1894), dealing with everything from Jungly Fruits to the character of the noviciate in Sikkim monasteries, are familiar monuments of the Raj. The Archers were special because it was at the very end of the imperial story that they were to make themselves internationally famous authorities in Indian art: when the Indian Empire ended, in 1947, they returned reluctantly to England and spent the rest of their lives (Bill died in 1980, Tim is still active) studying, cataloguing, celebrating and explaining the artistic genius of their former subjects.

The list of their publications is formidable, ranging from an anthology of Indian marriage sermons to mighty catalogues of Punjabi paintings or Pahari miniatures. Between them they published more than 50 books, besides countless articles and reviews, and as scholars and collectors their knowledge of many aspects of Indian painting, from tribal murals of the north to courtly miniatures or portraiture under British patronage, became unrivalled in the world.

They never really left the Empire. Bill became Keeper of the Indian section of the Victoria and Albert, Tim spent 25 years at the India Office Library. It is statutory in such late memoirs to record affectionate re-visits to the former subject nations, but the Archers can justly claim not only to be happily remembered in India, but to be greatly admired: their work is honoured there, encouraging Indian scholars to pursue neglected paths of artistic research, and Bill was contributing essays to learned Indian journals almost until he died.

Theirs were grand and remarkable lives, but it would be unfair to think of them as altogether uncharacteristic of the old Empire, which inspired so many of its servants, in their several ways, to noble aspirations and works of usefulness.

Like it or not, William and Mildred Archer were people of the Raj: it is proper that all the proceeds from this lovable and enthralling little book should be going to the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia, and will thus help to maintain the graves of imperialists of all sorts, snobs and saints, lofty administrators and brilliantined box-wallahs, who lie out there beneath the Eastern sun.

Suggested Topics
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit