As British Civil servants, William and Mildred Archer were not like their colleagues. For one, the couple, who arrived in Bihar in 1934, where Bill was a district collector, thought little of Anglo-saxon “club” culture. Instead, wishing to spend as little time playing bridge and discussing the subcontinent’s nuisances with dissatisfied sahibs, Bill and Mildred (known as Tim to her friends) would take off on extensive tours of the countryside, visiting rural villages, hearing their problems and acquainting themselves with local arts and crafts. Curious and impassioned, they began to amass a collection of Indian miniatures, traditional art and Anglo-Indian paintings, forging friendships with artists and workmen who they recognized as talented and knowledgeable.
Upon returning to England shortly after Independence, the Archers would put all that they had learnt to good use: Bill as head of the Indian department at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and Mildred as a cataloguer at the India Office Library, where she unearthed a significant stash of works by Indian and European artists done during the rule of the East India Company (known as “Company” paintings). When Bill died rather unexpectedly in 1979, and Mildred years later in 2005, they left behind an invaluable collection of Indian art, having done more for its profile and posterity in England than perhaps any other individual or institution. And unlike much of the myopic writing on Indian art at the time, the innumerous catalogues and books they penned explained thoughtfully and incisively the richness and relevance of the subcontinent’s art. Indeed, Bill was among the first to point out the influence of Kalighat painting on the works of Jamini Roy.
On 2 May, Sotheby’s will commence its auction of Indian art with 11 works from the Archers’ estate, an unusual body of work, which will include paintings by Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, George Keyt and Avinash Chandra. Much of these works were purchased directly from the artists themselves, and thus have unassailable provenance. Key among the collection will be four pen and ink works by Shimla-born Chandra, who inscribed one of the canvases with “To Bill, Happy Birthday. Love Avinash.” Another work, a nude, by Sri Lankan Keyt was commissioned by Bill himself. No doubt the lots featuring Subodh Gupta, Atul Dodiya and others will fetch higher prices and greater acclaim. In the melee of today’s contemporary market, it is easy to forget the early patrons, without whom, many great works would never have been seen at all.
The auction will be held on 2 May in London. For more information visit www.sothebys.coms