Val Archer has always painted. From the age of eight her subject matter was invariably the flowers and produce that her parents grew in their garden in Northamptonshire. Her workspace was a kitchen table which she shared with her mother, an excellent cook, and her props were the everyday objects of a simple and loving country home.
At Northampton High School for Girls she drew and painted every day and her teachers encouraged her interest in art. She also attended the classes run at the local art school by painter Henry Bird whose passionate belief in drawing as the cornerstone of art and in the unsurpassed examples of the Italian Old Masters was inspirational. His classes became legendary. Bird believed that sound craftsmanship was the springboard for everything else.
Archer obtained her BA at Manchester College of Art & Design before attending the Royal College of Art where she graduated with an MA and won the Anstruther Prize for Painting. Norman Stevens, who had trained originally alongside David Hockney at Bradford College of Art, was her head of painting at Manchester. Interwoven with the many facets of Stevens’ powerful and charming personality and his skill as a painter and printmaker, was a 'northern work ethic' that had a positive influence on many of his students.
Archer's tutors at the Royal College included Sir Peter Blake, Carel Weight, Sandra Blow, Sir Roger de Grey and Ruskin Spear. It was at the RCA that the skill and beauty of her distinctive and meticulous still lives were first recognised by collectors and galleries. During the early part of the 1970s she showed with Basil Jacobs in London.
Solo Exhibition in Germany
Val Archer’s paintings have always appealed to both European and North American audiences. In 1975 the long-established Kunsthaus Buhler in Stuttgart was the first gallery to stage a major one-person show of her oil paintings.
This was a success; the art critic of Stuttgarter Zeitung wrote “There is a magical quality in the objects she paints. In their silence they have real humanity that is expressed in a timeless way”.
Fischer Fine Art
Following in the footsteps of his father, who co-founded Marlborough Fine Art, Wolfgang Fischer established a highly influential gallery in London’s St James’s in the early 1970s. Archer exhibited here from 1979 to 1981. Fellow gallery artists included Ben Johnson, Brendan Nieland, David Tindle, Michael Sandle and Lucy McKenzie.
Robert Noortman, the influential Dutch art dealer and founder of the Maastricht Art Fair, approached Archer in the late 1980s to show at his gallery in the Netherlands.
A major force in the market for old master and Impressionist paintings, he saw in her work exacting patience to create a freshness and brilliance that had a parallel with the early 17th-century Dutch masters.
Her solo exhibitions at Noortman, Masstricht, at the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s sold out and were and critically acclaimed.
First Visit to Italy
The art of the Italian Renaissance has influenced Val Archer’s paintings throughout her professional life. Her first visit to Italy was in 1978 to see the work of the masters. Every year thereafter she was in the country three or four times a year to study paintings, sculpture, architecture and mosaics.
The work of Piero della Francesca was the focus of one of her early visits. In Tuscany she stayed in the Etruscan hill-top town of Cortona near where she would establish her Italian studio years later.
The Tate Gallery
In 1982 Val Archer was the co-creator of the Tate’s award winning exhibition Paint and Painting about the history of art materials and of colour and technique in painting. As well as a major exhibition in the gallery, over 60,000 people were tutored in painting, materials and techniques in two large, specially-designed pavilions on the lawns of Tate Britain.
The exhibition utilised Archer’s experience as a visiting lecturer at various art schools over the previous eight years. These included Wolverhampton and Lanchester Polytechnics; Winchester; Cheltenham; Cardiff; Sheffield; Chelsea and Goldsmiths Schools of Art. She continued teaching part-time until 1987.
In 1972 the leading auction house, Christie’s International, opened a number of commercial art galleries around Britain. Val Archer became one of their main artists and CCA staged regular solo exhibitions of her watercolours in the 1990s.
During this time her work was included in the Royal Academy’s summer exhibitions and she had two books published featuring watercolours on the themes of apples and berries.
Chris Beetles Gallery
From CCA, Archer moved to this leading St James’s gallery in 1998. Since then she has had solo exhibitions with them approximately every two years.
Through these shows and a regular online presence her work is now sold to a mainly British audience.
In 1999, at the invitation of the painter, sculptor and print maker, Joe Tilson and his wife, the sculptor Jos Tilson, Archer visited their house and studio near Cortona, Tuscany.
A year later she purchased a property nearby and began renovating it. In 2002 a purpose built studio, constructed by the same Italian builder who had built the Tilson’s studio, was ready for her to use. Ever since she has spent the summer and autumn months working there taking inspiration from the country’s art and architecture, its natural beauty, its history and the everyday objects and traditions associated with the Italian way of life.
The Painter & the Cook
A natural extension of Archer’s interest in Italian culture was the creation of a book about the food of the country’s little known regions as seen through her eyes as a painter and of the leading Italian food writer Anna del Conte.
Published by Conran Octopus under their joint names the book The Painter, The Cook and the Art of Cucina was, and still remains, a totally original food book.
“For the first time here is a title that uses original paintings - over 100 rich oils by a leading painter ….a lavish volume which can only be described as a feast for the senses”.
Exhibitions of the paintings were held in London and Milan in 2007.
Touching the Surface of Time
This was the title of a major exhibition of Archer’s paintings in 2011.
The work was inspired by the wall paintings and mosaic floors she recorded on visits to Roman sites throughout Italy, especially in and near Rome, at Pompeii and in Naples, Puglia and the Veneto. Of equal importance was her time spent in Libya, a few weeks before the downfall of Gaddafi after which travel to the country's many extraordinary Roman sites became impossible.
In the show catalogue she describes the delight in discovering new backgrounds for her still lives. “In painting mosaics and textured wall surfaces with remnants of frescoes still attached, I became interested in their three-dimensional quality, and in the infinite range of colours in the stone, marble and ceramic tesserae”.
Archer’s meticulously painted, generously coloured still lives have always been deeply attentive to the form and texture of her subjects. Allied to consummate technical skill this exhibition demonstrated a way of looking, an intensity of observation that few contemporary painters possess.
The Still Moment
The title of Archer's most recent exhibition at the Chris Beetles Gallery, London, as well as being a play on the term still life, reflects the quality of stillness present in her recent work, emphasising the contemplative nature of the act of observing and recording the world.
Working during the summer in her isolated studio in the Italian countryside, the silence and space around her helps her to dwell on her chosen objects with a calmer eye, thinking less about composition or ideas and more about the gentle pleasures of looking at things.
In London Archer carries on working with continued fascination for the Roman mosaics, crumbling walls and old wooden boards which all speak their own histories and have served as inspiration in the past.