Still life with Jeffrey: How Lord Archer is playing to the gallery

`I can't afford Monet, Manet or Renoir, so I decided to go for Pissarro, and the like'
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"I'm very aware that at my Christmas parties there are four groups," says Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare. "Those who come for the view; those who come for the company; those who come for the champagne and shepherd's pie and those who come for the pictures." In the week it was revealed that he was to open his collection to the public to raise money for the Royal Academy, The Independent, placing itself firmly in the fourth category, was allowed a private view.

First in sight are the 70 political cartoons which grace Lord Archer's hallway, including works by Ralph Steadman, Vicky, EH Shepherd and Gerald Scarfe, who has penned one particularly vicious portrait of Lady Thatcher. "I have to steer her past it like this," he says, demonstrating, "when she comes round."

Cartoons aside, Lord Archer's 13th-floor penthouse on the Albert embankment overlooking the Houses of Parliament boasts more than 250 paintings by Impressionists and 20th-century artists. Against the cream, gold and black neo-classicist decor sit works by, amongst others, Miro, Picasso, Dufy, Matisse, Lowry and Vuillard.

Lord Archer's first painting was bought "on the King's Road outside Safeways" for pounds 25. "I only had pounds 35 in the bank so I was terrified of telling Mary. I've never told her since what I pay because she'd turn in her grave," he says. Lady Archer, who is, of course, very much alive, is unlikely to quibble too much. As well as letting her "steal" the best ones for her study, Lord Archer had her immortalised in oils by Bryan Organ - as he points out, "that's who painted Prince Charles".

One enormous Vuillard features a woman who looks uncannily like his wife. The artist is a favourite, he says. "I can't afford Monet, Manet or Renoir so I decided to go for Pissarro, Vuillard and the like. It was a cash thing." The second division of Impressionists? "Yes. but I'm trying to pick the best of the division."

Many paintings have been bought with the proceeds of his best-selling novels. Perhaps in recognition of this, on a coffee table, a stone's throw from a Henry Moore, sits a silver cigar case, made in the shape of one of his paperbacks, and embossed with the words: "Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less".

Lord Archer has found many good bargains since his first purchases. One favourite came from Alan Bond's bankruptcy sale in Australia. He cannot resist showing another, which had an auction estimate of pounds 25,000, but he managed to get for pounds 2,000. When we have some trouble working out the name of the artist, he calls his dealer, who tells me. "I hear it was a special purchase," I say. Pause. "Every purchase is a special purchase," the dealer replies.

Lord Archer knows the value of a good dealer. Since his first days as a supporter of the RA 30 years ago, when he bought his paintings "for pounds 50", he has missed a couple of works through indecision. "I made some bad mistakes at first. I failed to pick up a wonderful Craigie Aitchison for pounds 750. I went back a second day, a third day and it was sold." The ones that got away appear to haunt him. One sculpture he recently lost he described as "killing him".

The Royal Academy tours, due to take place on two days in May and June, are already heavily oversubscribed, and there will be ballots to determine the 60 guests. But there are others who get regular viewings, he says, including the Camberwell Art School and many "serious artists". Those unable to see the real paintings may see his postcard reproductions.

Despite his passion for art - "a drug" - Lord Archer is unlikely to have much time to spare over the coming weeks, during a campaign which he admits will be "a struggle". Curiously, the day before our visit he had joked, at a gallery opening, that pictures of John Major as prime minister were likely to be more valuable after the election. I am reminded of this as I notice a framed cartoon by Peter Brookes, positing the famous photograph of Harold Wilson as a child outside No 10 against a copy featuring Tony Blair. Why had he chosen this one? "For its historical significance," he replies.

Does that mean, I venture, that he thinks Mr Blair will win? For the first time that morning, Lord Archer fixes me with a steely glare. "Certainly not," he says. And the tour is over.

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