Michael Archer (1936-2022)

Fig. 1. Michael Archer in 1978. Reproduced courtesy of the Archer family.

Fig. 1. Michael Archer in 1978. Reproduced courtesy of the Archer family.

The death of Michael Archer (Fig. 1) on 27 June 2022, at the age of 85, has deprived the stained glass community of an elder statesman. Upon joining the Department of Ceramics and Glass at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1963, it was part of his job to care for the national collection of stained glass. As a result, he was invited to join the British national committee of the Corpus Vitrearum in the following year. Like predecessors in the department, including Bernard Rackham and Herbert Read, he had a very broad knowledge. In the field of ceramics, he is probably best known for his definitive study of the museum’s collection of English delftware (1997), on which he was the world authority.

Archer’s involvement with art, and with stained glass, had begun early. His parents were both historians of Indian art. In a recent interview with Katie Harrison, he then recalled the happy chance of having Walter Oakeshott, the distinguished medieval art historian, as his headmaster at Winchester College. At that time, Oakeshott was acquiring back the outstanding late fourteenth-century medieval glass from the chapel, attributed to Thomas of Oxford, that had been dispersed during a restoration in the early nineteenth century. At that time secretary of the school’s Archaeological Society, Michael was delighted and intrigued by these luminous images. Across a long career, his contribution to the study of stained glass and to the community of stained-glass scholarship and conservation would be pioneering and substantial.

During his care of the national collection (1963-1996), he acquired notable new pieces, including a magnificent sixteenth-century French panel from the château d’Ecouen (1982, Fig. 2), and much nineteenth and twentieth-century glass, at a time when this was neglected. An interest in the whole history of the art was a feature of his career. His lucid Introduction to English Stained Glass (1985) for the general reader, published by the museum, ends with examples by Evie Hone and John Piper, from the V&A collection. As a keeper, he was determined that the museum’s holdings should be available to all, from the general public, to scholars and curators. Ahead of one of the Corpus Vitrearum colloquia in Britain, he laid out the entire V&A collection of continental glass in a gallery for the benefit of the international community, so that they could handle it and discuss attributions. He also began the task of cataloguing the collection, but this remained unfinished. His archive has been deposited with the British Corpus Vitrearum at the University of York. 

Fig. 2. Device and monogram of Anne de Montmorency, constable of France, probably from the château d’Ecouen, c.1548-50, 102.5 x 66.3 cm. Victoria & Albert Museum, London, acc. no. C.47-1982. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Fig. 2. Device and monogram of Anne de Montmorency, constable of France, probably from the château d’Ecouen, c.1548-50, 102.5 x 66.3 cm. Victoria & Albert Museum, London, acc. no. C.47-1982. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Fig. 3. Lincoln College chapel, Oxford: Jonah and the Whale (I, 1e), Abraham van Linge, 1631. © The York Glaziers Trust.

Fig. 3. Lincoln College chapel, Oxford: Jonah and the Whale (I, 1e), Abraham van Linge, 1631. © The York Glaziers Trust.

Archer was a staunch advocate of extending the remit of the Corpus beyond the Middle Ages, and he practised what he preached. His own research was focused upon the study of seventeenth and eighteenth-century glass painting in England, including the work of Abraham Van Linge (Fig. 3), Richard Butler and Baptist Sutton, in the earlier period, and the Price family, in the latter. This was ground-breaking work, hardly anyone was interested in them at the time, but it benefitted from his deep understanding of sources, patrons and wider contexts, across his fields of expertise. Issues of authorship, craft organization and religious belief were explored through meticulous examination of documentary sources and case studies. As Geoffrey Lane observed in this journal (link to issue 55), Michael’s article on William Price the Younger’s work, now at Erddig House, published in Apollo (October 1985), more than tripled the list of the artist’s oeuvre to establish him as the single most important glass-painter in mid-eighteenth-century England. His work laid the foundations for the next generation of scholars, who now recognize the interest of glass painting in early modern Britain, in its relationship to worship within the Church of England, to artistic exchanges between Britain and the continent, and the development of other kinds of painting and crafts, including ceramics.

Generations of scholars have benefited from Michael’s support, sometimes literally. He recalled holding on to Madeline Caviness, when she was working on the glass at Canterbury Cathedral, as she leaned out of the triforium gallery to take photographs. He encouraged those who wished to follow in his own field of study, and beyond it. David King recalls: ‘I knew Michael when I first joined the CVMA in 1970 and he helped us young authors a lot on the editorial aspects of the task.’ Conservator Keith Barley remembers Michael’s support when starting out in a business on his own. Michael himself remembers meeting Sarah Brown on almost her first day of work at the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, at the beginning of a long association. He was also aware how hard it is to develop a field of study upon slender resources. As an unemployed scholar in the 1990s, I remember visiting a house where Michael had been invited to evaluate a diverse collection of glass of many periods, from the middle ages to the twentieth century. We spent a happy day looking at it together, and I learnt a lot. It is typical of him that, on the way out, he gave me the fee.   

Serving on many committees towards the public appreciation of stained glass and its conservation, Michael’s contribution went far beyond the museum and the Corpus. He was a founding Trustee of the Stained Glass Museum at Ely, as curator Jasmine Allen recalls, playing an active role in both management and acquisitions, including enamel painted glass. He also served as a trustee of the York Glaziers Trust, and chaired the Stained Glass Conservation Committee of the Council for the Care of Churches. He was strongly in favour of combining art history and conservation, in the conservation studios at Canterbury and at York, ‘catching up with the continent’, as he put it. At Canterbury Cathedral, he chaired until recently the stained glass advisory committee, advocating for the exhibition of panels from the ‘miracle windows’ in the Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint exhibition at the British Museum (2021). For his twenty years of voluntary service on the Advisory Board for Redundant Churches, Michael Archer was awarded an OBE in 1997. Those who had the pleasure of sitting on committees with Michael will remember his vigorous support for right courses of action and good causes, as he saw them, and his shrewd sense of how to get there.

Michael was also wonderful company, as many colleagues have recalled since his passing, witty, urbane and with a mischievous grin. For him, as for many, the colloquia of the Corpus Vitrearum were occasions not only for the exchange of knowledge, but also what he described himself as ‘a great deal of fun’. David O’Connor remembers an incident in a museum where continental colleagues (including the great German stained-glass scholar Rüdiger Becksmann) were gathered to admire some glass by the sixteenth-century artist Valentin Bousch: ‘The centre of the gallery was dominated by a massive highly ornate 19th-century ceramic vase on a pedestal – probably a prize winner at the Great Exhibition. “I say, how absolutely spiffing”, Michael exclaimed loudly, much to Becksmann’s puzzlement – “What is this – this Spiffing?”.’ Michael contributed to our field and others in so many ways, sharing his knowledge and long experience with good humour, generosity and kindness. He is greatly missed.

Michael Archer is survived by his wife Lucy, and two children.

Professor Tim Ayers, University of York and President of the International Corpus Vitrearum


Bibliography of Michael Archer’s Publications on Stained Glass (compiled by Sarah Brown and Penny Hebgin-Barnes)

‘English Painted Glass in the Seventeenth Century: The Early Work of Abraham van Linge’, Apollo 101 (January 1975), 26-31. 

‘Beest, Bird or Flower: Stained Glass at Gorhambury House I’, Country Life 159 (3 June 1976), 1451-1454.

‘Elements and Continents: Stained Glass at Gorhambury, Hertfordshire II’, Country Life 159 (10 June 1976), 1562-64.

‘17th-Century Painted Glass at Little Easton, Essex Journal (Spring 1977), 3-10.

The James A. Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor: Glass and Enamels, Fribourg 1977 (with R.J. Charleston)

‘A Colourful and Splendid Array at Ely’, Country Life 166 (25 October 1979), 1408-1409.

Stained Glass, Andover 1979 (with subsequent editions)

The Painted Glass of Lydiard Tregoze, Swindon 1981

‘The case of superstitious images’ in Peter Moore ed. Crown in Glory: A Celebration of Craftsmanship Studies in Stained Glass, Norwich [1982], 48-57.

An Introduction to English Stained Glass, London 1985

‘Stained Glass at Erddig and the Work of William Price’, Apollo 122 (October 1985), 252-263

‘Montmorency’s Sword from Ecouen’, Burlington Magazine 129 (May 1987), 298-306.

English Heritage in Stained Glass: Oxford, Oxford and New York 1988 (with S. Brown and P. Cormack).

‘Quarrying for Clues: 17th-Century Stained Glass’, Country Life 182 (1 December 1988), 184-186.

‘Richard Butler, Glass-Painter’, Burlington Magazine 132 (May 1990), 308-315

The Stained Glass Museum Gallery Guide, Ely 2000, (with S. Brown, V. Churchill, P. Cormack and S. Mathews).

‘Price, William, the elder (d.1709), glass painter’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.

‘John Piper and the Stained Glass of St George’s Chapel, Windsor’ in S. Brown ed. A History of the Stained Glass of St George’s Chapel, Leeds 2005, 167-170.

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