William Archer

Other names: 

William George Archer

Bill Archer

Date of birth: 
01 Feb 1907
City of birth: 
Country of birth: 
Date of death: 
06 Mar 1979

London, Patna, Bihar, India.


William Archer established a reputation as one of the most prominent authorities on Indian art in twentieth-century Britain. Before becoming a curator and writer, Archer had spent a considerable amount of time in India with the Indian Civil Service (ICS). In 1931, he was posted to rural Bihar where he first encountered Indian religious sculpture and rural Indian life and culture. Archer was immediately struck by what he saw as the intimate connections between Indian art and modern European art - a relationship which structured his argument in India and Modern Art (1959). He was also involved in an exhibition, along with Herbert Read and Robert Melville, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (London) entitled '40,000 Years of Modern Art: A Comparison of Primitive and Modern'.

Archer's first book, The Blue Grove, a translation of Uraon folk songs, was published in 1940. He had an avid interest in poetry and language throughout his life. In 1934, he married Mildred Agnes Bell (who would become an important scholar of Indian culture in her own right and the curator of the Prints and Drawings Collection of the India Office Library), and they spent the next few years living in India whilst William served as a District Magistrate and Superintendent of the Census. He became increasingly interested in the tribal life of India and the Santal people in particular. William Archer’s last posting in India was as Additional Deputy Commissioner in the Naga Hills from 1946 to 1948. Following independence, the Archers returned to London and William Archer was appointed Keeper of the Indian Section of the Victoria and Albert Museum (he was in his early forties). Here he became particularly interested in Indian painting and acquired important collections for the museum, including William Rothenstein’s private collection. He received an OBE in 1947. The Archers continued to travel to India to collect material for their publications and made many connections with Indian artists, writers and critics, including Mulk Raj Anand (see correspondence in the British Library).


Mulk Raj Anand, Mildred Archer, William Rothenstein.

Indian Civil Service, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Published works: 

40,000 Years of Modern Art: A Comparison of Primitive and Modern (London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1948)

Kangra Painting (London: Faber & Faber, 1952)

The Loves of Krishna in Indian Painting and Poetry (London: Allen & Unwin, 1957)

Central Indian Painting (London: Faber & Faber, 1958)

Indian Painting Now (London, 1960)

Indian Painting from the Punjab Hills (London and New York: Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1973)

Visions of Courtly Indian: The Archer Collection of Pahari Miniature (Washington, DC: International Exhibitions Foundation, c.1976)

Secondary works: 

Eyre, Giles, William and Mildred Archer: India Served and Observed (London: BACSA, 1994)

Skelton, Robert, ‘Obituary: William George Archer’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 2 (1979), pp. 186-8

Archive source: 

Letters, drafts and correspondence, Mss Eur F 236, Asian and African Studies Reading Room, British Library, St Pancras.