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A notorious colonial officer’s collection of Indian art goes on sale in London

A notorious colonial officer’s collection of Indian art goes on sale in London

Indian paintings collected by a white colonial killer and civil service sycophant are expected to fetch record prices when they go on sale on June 12 in London.

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Last Updated : 09 June 2024, 23:28 IST
Last Updated : 09 June 2024, 23:28 IST
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A notorious colonial officer’s collection of Indian art goes on sale in London

Indian paintings collected by a white colonial killer and civil service sycophant are expected to fetch record prices when they go on sale on June 12 in London.

British auction house Lyon and Turnbull are in charge of selling the paintings that once belonged to a notorious ICS officer named William Archer who personally authorised the shooting of seven unarmed schoolboys trying to hoist the national flag above the walls of the Patna secretariat in August 1942.

Patna was one of the last postings for Archer before he returned to London, where he eventually committed suicide many years later in 1979. The Patna teenagers killed on Archer’s orders were participating in a protest march in support of Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India movement. When local police refused to shoot the boys, Archer brought in the Gurkhas to implement his orders. He never expressed any remorse for their deaths, nor did he contact their families or suggest offering them compensation.

Many of the 60 paintings were acquired in the pre-independence period by Archer and his wife Mildred when they lived in India between 1931 and 1947. They range from 17th and 18th century Malwa (Madhya Pradesh) miniatures illustrating the Ramayana and Bhagavata Purana to others depicting aristocrats from the Punjab hills. Modestly-priced Santhal paintings from Bihar are also in the collection. 

Most of the others have an underestimated value of £1,000 upwards and during the Archers’ lifetimes, they were given on temporary loans to British museums as well as the Smithsonian in Washington DC.

Art experts in London say there is high demand for good-quality Indian miniatures and other paintings from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. A good example is last November’s London sale of ‘The Taj Mahal by moonlight’, painted by early 19th century Bengali artist Sita Ram. Its estimated price was a relatively modest £30,000, but in an auction buying frenzy, it was bought for more than £450,000 (Rs 4.5 crore) by a billionaire art collector from New Delhi who plans to display it in her private art gallery.

Local 18th century schools of Indian art that produced watercolours highlighting day-to-day life in cities like Jaipur and Mathura are also included in the Archer sale. Their current estimated sale value is between £2,000 and £3,000. 

One of the unique and potentially most valuable 18th century Pahari miniatures shows Raja Suraj Mal of Nurpur holding a hawk. It has a modest estimated price of between £6,000-8,000 but could easily sell for much more.

It was acquired by Archer before returning to London in 1948 and is described as ‘gouache and gold on card, dark blue border, depicting Raj Suraj Mal in an orange jama, wearing a white turban with gold aigret and black plume, draped in jewels, his left hand leaning on a green window sill whilst his right hand holds the breast of a white hawk looking up at him.’

The most expensive painting in the collection, with an estimated value of £20,000-30,000, depicts a European woman lying on her divan as she listens to an Indian female musician playing the lute with a black African boy stretched out before them. The auctioneers describe this 18th century work of art from Surat as ‘gouache on paper heightened with gold, dark blue border, depicting a corner interior, the pink stone patterned walls decorated with three Chinese paintings within black frames…the European mistress is robed in white with gold patterned sprigs and gold trimmings and lies on her carved and gilt wood divan with her eyes closed against a green bolster.’

Following their return from India, the Archers bought a posh house in London’s Primrose Hill where they regularly entertained a variety of British and Indian visitors. Archer was also successful in obtaining a new job as a specialist in Indian art with the prestigious Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum. Among the British visitors to their London home was a young scholar called Andrew Topsfield, later appointed as Keeper of Eastern Art at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

“I first met them in 1974, when Bill was an examiner for my London MA dissertation on an aspect of Rajasthani painting”, Dr Topsfield writes in his introduction to the sales catalogue of the Archer collection. “An invitation followed to visit them at home for an evening chota peg. They received me very cordially and I felt honoured when they brought out some of their fine Pahari pictures for an enjoyable informal viewing.” 

Former and current staffers at the V&A explain how routine police checks were not carried out on Archer’s background when he applied for his post-war/post-independence museum job in London because he was “moving from one civil service job to another”. Archer himself made strenuous efforts to gloss over memories of the killing of the Patna schoolboys by deliberately cultivating and lavishing hospitality on key members of the Indian political elite.

One of those who resisted his charms was Indira Gandhi’s Principal Secretary P N Haksar, who refused to meet Archer. Another who refused was Mohammed Yunus, a close confidante of Indira Gandhi and India’s former ambassador to Algeria. That may explain Archer’s private handwritten notes held at the British Library Archives where he describes Yunus as “v.vitriolic.”

Other private papers held at the British Library in London reveal how Archer was more successful in cultivating the likes of former External Affairs Minister K Natwar Singh, who had served as India’s Deputy High Commissioner in London, 1973 to 1977. In a gushing letter to Natwar Singh, written on 4 April 1976, Archer thanks him for arranging a one-to-one meeting with Indira Gandhi, adding how he believed it was at her insistence that he was awarded an honorary degree by Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar. Yet Archer’s private papers also reveal him as a typically two-faced and  “mutlabi” British colonial. The seemingly affectionate terms in which he writes to Natwar in London and later in Zambia, where too Natwar served as High Commissioner, are in sharp contrast to what he says about the former minister in his disparaging private notes, characterising him as “v.anti-British…”

Tellingly, Indira was the focus of Archer’s toadying efforts to win acceptance by India’s political establishment, despite his own dubious personal record. After he was received for tea with Indira in New Delhi at the height of the Emergency, Archer wrote to her saying “Many supposed ‘friends of India’ in this country ...patently failed to understand or approve your action in declaring the Emergency.”

Forced sterilisations were underway in India when Archer wrote  to Indira in his letter dated December 11, 1975, declaring, “I admire and applaud your courage…May I urge you to continue for some years -- if not indefinitely -- your present course of action, for l am convinced that without the strongest and firmest control from the Centre, traitors will again surface and with the same dire threats to India’s welfare and independence.”

In her response, dated December 26, 1975, Indira wrote back, “I am touched …by the understanding you show of the complex situation in our country.”

Although both William and Mildred Archer made numerous post-independence visits to India, they never once tried to contact the families of the young boys killed in 1942. Nor did they ever return to Patna. In a joint autobiography written with his wife, entitled, ‘India Served and Observed’, published by the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA), Archer makes no reference to the Bihar killings, but gives ample space to talk about Mahatma Gandhi. “He was very, very ugly.”

Mildred Archer makes a passing reference to the Bihar killings, explaining how her husband “as a last resort ordered the police to fire upon the mob. This was the saddest day of Bill’s whole career in India, for eight students were killed.”

In actual fact, seven students were killed in Patna on 8 August, 1942. They were Umakant Prasad Sinha, Ramanand Singh, Satish Chandra Jha, Jagatpati Kumar, Devipada Choudhry, Rajendra Singh and Ram Govind Singh. All are fondly commemorated at a Martyrs Memorial built in their memory, close to the buildings of the Patna secretariat.

Lyon and Turnbull had not responded to a request for comment by the time of this writing. 

(The writer is a senior journalist based in London)

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