Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Archer, James (1823-1904)

ARCHER, JAMES (1823–1904), painter, born in Edinburgh on 10 June 1823, was eldest child of Andrew Archer, dentist in Edinburgh, who married Ann Cunningham Gregory, and by her had two sons and two daughters. The younger son, Andrew, was the author of a history of Canada (1876), while the youngest child, Georgina, was the founder of the Victoria Institute, Berlin, and tutoress of the German Emperor William II, Prince Henry, and Princess Charlotte of Prussia. After education at Edinburgh High School, James studied art at the Trustees' Academy, while Sir William Allan [q. v.] was at its head, with Thomas Duncan [q. v.] as his assistant. Archer's generation thus immediately preceded that which studied under Scott Lauder [q. v.], although he outlived and outworked many of Lauder's pupils. He was elected an associate of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1850, and he became a full member in 1858. The life-class in that year passed from the Trustees' School to the control of the Scottish Academy, and (Sir) Joseph Noel Paton [q. v. Suppl. II], James Drummond [q. v.], and Archer were appointed visitors. Their report on the conduct of the life-class insisted on drawing as opposed to colour in the training, a recommendation which Lauder appears to have regarded as a reflection on his own methods (cf. Hardie, Life of Pettie, p. 12). While resident in Edinburgh, Archer showed his versatility in the many pictures which he exhibited at the Scottish Academy; these included 'The Child John in the Wilderness' (exhibited 1842); 'The Messiah' (1846); 'The Condemned Souls Crossing the River Acheron' and 'The Last Supper' (1849); 'Douglas Tragedy' and 'Mary Magdalene at the Sepulchre' (1850); 'The Mistletoe Bough' and 'Burger's Leonora' (1852); 'Hamlet' (1853); 'Rosalind and Celia,' his diploma work (1854); 'The Last Supper' (1856), and the first (1861) of several scenes from the 'Mort d'Arthur.' In these years he also painted many portraits in oils, and until his migration to London had a large practice in portraiture in chalks; among his sitters were Professor Aytoun and Alexander Smith.

In 1862-3 Archer gave up his Edinburgh studio, 2 York Place, and removed to London, He resigned at the time his lieutenancy in the artists' company of the city of Edinburgh artillery volunteers, in which, under the captaincy of Sir Noel Paton, with John Faed as first lieutenant, was enrolled every artist of note in Edinburgh at that time. He was also a member of the Smashers Sketching Club, which he helped to revive in London later under the name of the Auld Lang Syne Sketching Club (see Chambers's Journal, January 1906).

In London, settling first at 21 Phillimore Gardens, and after 1882 at 7 Cromwell Place, he diligently contributed to the Royal Academy, to which he had sent pictures since 1850, and where he continued to exhibit until 1900, missing one year only during the half-century. He had some difficulty in disentangling himself from the Arthurian legend, but was most successful with costume pictures and portraits of children, such as 'Playing at Queen with a Painter's Wardrobe' (R.A. 1861), 'How the Little Lady Stood to Velasquez' (R.A. 1864), 'Old Maid: Maggie, you're cheatin' (R.A. 1865), 'In the Time of Charles I: Portraits of the Children of W. Walkinshaw, Esq.' (R.A. 1867), 'Against Cromwell' (R.A. 1869), 'Colonel Sykes, M.P,' (R.A. 1871). A long series of portraits included several painted during prolonged visits between 1884 and 1887 both to the United States (Mr. James G. Elaine and Mr. Andrew Carnegie) and to India (Lady Dufferin and Lord Clandeboye, Lord Dalhousie, and a posthumous portrait of Sir Charles Macgregor). Among his chief sitters at home were Sir George Trevelyan (R.A. 1872), Professor Blackie, three times (the portrait of 1873 hangs in the library of the Scottish Academy), Sir Henry Irving in 'The Bells' (R.A. 1872), Dr. Ellicott (R.A. 1883), and Sir Edwin Arnold (R.A. 1890). In 1877 he painted for and presented to the Scottish Academy a portrait of Sir Daniel Macnee. Archer continued to the end of his life to produce large canvases, such as 'King Henry II and Fair Rosamund,' 'The Worship of Dionysus,' 'Peter the Hermit,' 'St. Agnes of the Early Christian Martyrs,' and ' In the Second Century "You a Christian?" '. He also painted a few landscapes. For the first number of 'Good Words' (1860) he did six drawings illustrating the serial story 'Lady Somerville's Maidens,' and he contributed two illustrations to 'Household Song' (1861).

During his last years he lived at Shian, Haslemere, where he died on 3 Sept. 1904; he was buried at Haslemere. Archer married, in 1853, Jane Clark, daughter of James Lawson, W.S., Edinburgh; a son and three daughters survived him.

Archer's work was always refined, and reflected his interest in literature and a certain sympathy with the Pre-Raphaelites; a lack of force may be attributed to what his friend Professor Blackie described as 'his thoughtful, evangelico-artistic mildness' (Letters of John Stuart Blackie to his Wife). Unluckily for his reputation he continued to work after his powers failed. He was at the time of his death the oldest member of the Royal Scottish Academy, and had been for ten years on its retired list.

A portrait painted by himself at an early age is in the possession of the widow of Henry Gregory Smith, Edinburgh.

[Private information; The Times, 6 Sept. 1904; Scotsman, 8 Sept. 1904; Graves's Royal Academy Exhibitors, 1905; Cat. Royal Scot. Academy.]

D. S. M.