Mildred Archer

Art historian at the India Office
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The Independent Online

Mildred Agnes Bell, art historian: born London 28 December 1911; Head, Prints and Drawings Section, India Office Library 1954-80; OBE 1979; married 1934 Bill Archer (died 1979; one son, one daughter); died Cleeve, Somerset 4 February 2005.

Mildred Agnes Bell, art historian: born London 28 December 1911; Head, Prints and Drawings Section, India Office Library 1954-80; OBE 1979; married 1934 Bill Archer (died 1979; one son, one daughter); died Cleeve, Somerset 4 February 2005.

In 1954, the India Office Library invited Mildred Archer to catalogue a "few miscellaneous Indian paintings". The task was expected to take a few weeks only, but led to 25 years based at the library: it was the start of a project that significantly helped to shape our understanding of artistic activity in and on India in the period from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries, as is shown by the dense bibliography of Archer's writings.

The India Office collections were a superb, and at that time untapped, resource. After the division of the India Office collections in 1879 and their dispersal to the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum and other institutions, the India Office Library collections had mainly been used by historians and linguists and the paintings had been neglected.

As Archer delved in the Reading Room and Iron Room of the library's then premises in King Charles Street and looked for missing parts of series in the old India Office (now the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), she identified more and more groups of the drawings and engravings made mainly for the British by both British and Indian professional painters.

A steady stream of publications began to appear, some driven by exhibitions - for example, The Daniells in India (1960) accompanied the Commonwealth Institute exhibition of watercolours and drawings made by William and Thomas Daniell on their Indian tours in the late 18th century; others came about by the disciplined, systematic and accumulative work of cataloguing the collection.

Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library appeared in 1962; British Drawings in the India Office Library, cataloguing some 11,000 items by amateur, official and professional artists, with a valuable critical and historical introduction, was published in 1969; Company Drawings - nearly 3,000 examples of work of Indian artists illustrating the manners and customs of India, its sights, monuments, deities, festivals, methods of transportation and occupations in the blend of Indian and British styles, known under the generic title "Company Painting", appeared in 1972; Indian Popular Painting in 1977.

Mildred Archer, or Tim, as she was popularly known, was eminently well suited to the task she first started in 1954. Born Mildred Bell in 1911, into a family firmly wedded to the values of education, she went to a London day school before winning a History scholarship to St Hilda's College, Oxford.

While still at school she was introduced to a Cambridge friend of her brother Frank, the young W.G. (Bill) Archer, then an Indian Civil Service probationer, studying Hindi, Indian History and Law at the School of Oriental Studies, London. Before he left for India, and as she left school, they became engaged. Despite the separation she enjoyed her Oxford years, both academically and politically. She joined the Labour Club, and sought every opportunity to engage with current discussion about India's independence. In the summer of 1934 Bill returned home on sick leave; they married and by September sailed for India.

The next 14 years were a fascinating if difficult time for a young left-wing civil servant and his wife to be in India as the move to independence developed pace. With an understandable political ambivalence, both disliked the British Indian club-and-bridge world, gravitated naturally to the more scholarly ICS officers and sought and made many friendships with Indian colleagues in the service and showed much more than mere courtesy to those active in the nationalist cause.

Whenever possible Tim joined her husband in his small, tented camp as he travelled his domain, dispensing justice, learning local law and lore. 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 parts of Bihar where they spent most of their time, whether in the flat lands of the Mithila region where Bill 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 and Santal and other tribal communities.

They shared their love of art - their first home was decorated with prints of Van Gogh, Cézanne, Matisse and Chagall, Susie Cooper china and Swedish glass - taking advantage of circumstance and acquiring the beginnings of what became an important private collection of Indian art. Tim, soon also a mother of two small children, followed her own insatiable curiosity and developed her knowledge of Indian history, exploring connections offered by circumstance, and started to write, building what was to become the foundation of her subsequent career.

After independence W.G. Archer, happily, was invited to become Keeper of the Indian Section at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and in his subsequent career played a key role in developing our understanding of the Indian arts of painting. When he was asked himself and then passed to Tim the task of cataloguing the paintings in the India Office Library, their partnership moved to another creative phase. Their home in Provost Road, north of Primrose Hill, was a mecca for scholars and curators, as well as those in the trade.

Despite Bill's death in 1979 and what might have been her own retirement, Tim, with the warmth of a family that shared many of her interests and links with the arts and museum world, seems to have refocused her energies. As she came to the end of her time at the India Office Library, she expanded her work on particular artists or themes, publishing no longer with HMSO, but with commercial publishers now confident of the market interest that Mildred Archer had herself played such a key part in establishing. Titles include India and British Portraiture, 1770-1825 (1979), Early Views of India: the picturesque journeys of Thomas and William Daniell (1980) and Visions of India: the sketchbooks of William Simpson, 1859-1862 (1986).

Retirement in no way halted her work for public institutions. Now often working in collaboration with younger colleagues, she remained a driving force in making collections in these fields better known - whether the 1982 Festival of India exhibition "India Observed" or the 1992 catalogue of Company Paintings at the Victoria & Albert Museum; the Clive collections at Powis Castle, where she and a team of scholars from the National Trust and the V&A together prepared the catalogue of the new display; or the still-unpublished collections at the India Office itself. The volumes written with Toby Falk, Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library (1981) and India Revealed: the art and adventures of James and William Fraser, 1801-35 (1989), are prime examples of this period.

Her sustained contribution to the field was recognised with an honorary doctorate from Oxford, and in 1979 she was appointed OBE.

Mildred Archer's small figure, cheerful warm smile, her discipline in her work, her indefatigable energy, her enthusiasm and affection for India and its arts and for those who shared that love, will remain a very fond memory and inspiration for all who knew and worked with her.

Deborah Swallow