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Obituary: E. H. H. Archibald

THE 4,000 oil paintings in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, include more portraits than any other English collection except the National Portrait Gallery, with which there was long an active collusion on who had claims on what. "Wearing my National Portrait Gallery hat," said the NPG trustee Viscount Stanhope of an unusual Cromwellian item, "I say that should go to Greenwich" - where Stanhope was at the same time the NMM's first chairman of trustees (1934-59). Such a tale: witty, well-observed and usually true - though not always exact - was the style of history purveyed by E. H. H. Archibald, who was for over 30 years the curator of that enormous oils collection, and oversaw acquisition of nearly a quarter of it.

What the exact topic was, so long as it appealed to him, did not matter: marine art, portraits, rare books, glass and ceramics, arms and armour, flags, costume and manners, ships, cars, aircraft, the history of the Royal Navy and "its traditional enemies, the French", that of the museum itself, dogs (he bred Afghans), plants, exotic birds and fish.

All were subjects on which he had something to say which you might not hear from anyone else, or at least not in the same conversation and in his way; knowing but unpatronising, fresh however often told, and punctuated by his peculiar tics. "Quite!" and "Don't y' know?" were interjections of urbane astonishment or mild disbelief; a long "yes" expressed sardonic doubt, its depth in direct ratio to the length of the period. "Do you think this picture is by or after Bloggs, Mr Archibald?" "Well . . . yerrrrrs (heavy pause) But a long way after, don't-y'-know!"

Teddy Archibald was born in Belfast in 1927, elder son of a well-off and widely connected Protestant family in the linen finishing business. His father Walter was a young stretcher-bearer on the British side during the Easter Rising (bringing in James Connolly, later executed, who gave him his gloves) and also fought in France as an officer in the Dublin Fusiliers. Both he and Archibald's mother, who survives him, were busy, social and sporting people, and his happy early years included a devoted nanny and, in his teens, an uncle from whom he learnt about collecting 18th-century glass.

He became a keen sailor, and later a risk-taking athlete whose exploits included surviving the Cresta Run practically untutored on both the luge and in a dangerously impromptu bobsleigh crew: they crashed. An early idea of joining the Navy led him to an English prep school before, rather unusually for his background, he went to Stowe, then recently established and under the charismatic headmastership of J.F. Roxburgh, whom he adored. He made many friends there - recollecting a "shared hatred of organised team games" with his classmate George Melly, "an amusing, eccentric boy" - before going to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1945 to read History, though not seriously enough to get more than a modest degree.

He however exercised a keen eye, his rooms filled with friends and with 17th-century portraits, glass, rare books and armour bought at very low prices. At Sotheby's sale of the Stead Collection in 1948 he put up his hand at pounds 3 for a tray of chain mail, got it at pounds 2, and came away with one of the best 15th-century hauberks out of public captivity. This he twice wore to all-night dances, observing how light it was, though for a man even bigger than his handsome six feet.

In 1951, after three years in the family firm, Archibald was "bowled over" by the Greenwich collections, while in London for an unsuccessful Colonial Service interview. He corresponded with the NMM director, Frank Carr, and - with 127 others - applied for a post in the picture department under Michael Robinson.

He joined in May 1952, his British interests complementing Robinson's in the Dutch school. Between then and his retirement in 1984 he became the anchor of the museum's expertise in oils, who they were by, what they showed, and was a mine of advice to anyone with a genuine interest: in the 1950s and 1960s when the museum had significant private funds and prices were low he was sometimes able to acquire 50 a year.

"Leggatt's rang in 1956 to ask if we were interested in an early portrait of Captain Keppel by Reynolds: `Would pounds 150 be too much?' I said, `No'," was fairly typical. "How about pounds 500 for the two?" he asked a Welsh jobbing dealer who had cheaply bought five large canvasses from the Cardiff Coal Exchange in 1968, thus securing a superb W.L. Wyllie of the bombardment of Alexandria (1882) and a 13ft Charles Dixon of the surrendered German High Seas Fleet entering Rosyth.

Other things were more recondite, from identifying the hand of Isaac Sailmaker, to reattributing many of the Palmer Collection of early Dutch pictures (acquired with a special Treasury grant in 1963).

In 1961 HMSO published his Preliminary Descriptive Catalogue of the NMM portraits and the following year he organised a then pioneering and stylish "mixed media" exhibition on "Passengers by Sea". He wrote the accompanying booklet, and also organised in 1964 the only exhibition ever devoted to the artist-voyager John Everett, whose work was willed to the museum.

However, his main publishing successes were where knowledgeable enthusiasm rather than scholarly reference could predominate. Though now sniped at by more thorough if less engaging specialists, his two specially illustrated books on The Wooden Fighting Ship in the Royal Navy (1968) and The Metal Fighting Ship (1970) sold 60,000 copies in all and it would have been 90,000 had he not refused to allow a cheap edition. His Dictionary of Sea Painters (1980) will reappear later this year in a third, enlarged edition and, though lacking rigour, is likely to remain a standard source.

Its writing was partly based on a world trip round galleries and museums which he took as unpaid leave in 1978 when it was clear he was going to end his career as it began, simply as Curator of Oil Paintings. For by then times had changed. Archibald fitted well into the "gentlemen's club" of Frank Carr's regime but less and less into what followed.

From 1967 the museum became a bigger and more complex organisation, with wider interests and increasingly unsympathetic for a connoisseur of fixed views (many reactionary) and little truck with the deference and flexibility that other brands of authority required. The historical catalogue of NMM paintings that he completed was not in a form suitable for publication by the early 1980s and he was sidelined, perhaps inevitably but to its detriment, in the computer-based work which led to the published Concise Catalogue of NMM oils in 1986.

By then he had taken early retirement and, though he acted as a private consultant, wrote some informative recollections and continued to live close to the museum, his last years were ones of increasing loneliness and depression, springing from unresolved conflicts in his nature and worsened by heavy drinking. It was difficult to help him because, in the periods he seemed on top of things, he refused to acknowledge that anything was wrong.

Generous and honourable man as he was, with a great gift for friendship with all sorts, Teddy Archibald's isolation also drove him into some associations in which his kindness was much abused. It became hard to foresee a better end than the one he met when his iron constitution finally gave up, after several weeks well cared for in hospital. His last known words, spoken from sleep, were characteristic: "But who's it by?"(as of a picture) and the name of the last of his much-loved collies.

Edward Hunter Holmes Archibald, museum curator and writer: born Belfast 24 January 1927; Curator of Oil Paintings, National Maritime Museum 1952- 84; died London 27 May 1998.