Val Archer (born 1946) Blurring distinctions between still life, interior and the record of architectural detail, Val Archer has developed a highly original and absorbing body of work. Attentive to the aesthetic pleasures of life, she handles paint sensitively and sensuously, and keeps alive the canvas and paper through thrilling combinations of colour, texture and motif. Flowers, fruits and fabrics are set against complex, resonant surfaces to encapsulate feelings for places and cultures.
Val Archer was born in Northampton and was educated there at the High School for Girls. While still at school, she attended on Saturday mornings Henry Bird’s drawing classes at Northampton School of Art. A painter of the old school, Bird was helpful and encouraging: as useful and illuminating as his rigorous approach to life-drawing was his knowledgeable passion for the Italian masters.
Already a compulsive worker, Archer would typically spend the rest of her weekend painting, either outside or back at home, sharing the kitchen table while her mother cooked.
In 1964 Archer left Northampton to study at Manchester College of Art and Design. For her at this time this was the ideal environment and she still speaks warmly of the stimulation and instruction she received. A wide-ranging pre-diploma year, during which she particularly enjoyed the sculpture, was followed by a three-year painting course. Norman Adams was head of painting, teaching by example rather than instruction, and the majority of the staff were young and energetic artists at the beginning of their careers. Art history was taught; a liberal studies course introduced unfamiliar music and ideas; and for the first time, Archer encountered contemporary art from the USA, finding herself most drawn to the Pop artists and those moving away from abstract expressionism – Jim Dine, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg. A very different but equally profound enthusiasm formed at this time was for Pierre Bonnard: the Royal Academy’s exhibition devoted to him in 1966 made a lasting impression.
Val Archer graduated from Manchester in 1968 and, feeling she ‘needed more time’, moved to London to study painting at the Royal College of Art. Here she found a very different atmosphere: some of the teachers maintained a distant attitude to the students and not all of them encouraged an interest in contemporary American art. Despite this, she made several trips to the USA in the late Sixties and early Seventies, principally to New York. An offer of representation by a New York gallery raised the possibility of making a career there, but she decided to return to the UK. Back in London, themes and subjects began to appear which would feature in her work for many years. The most important of these was a fascination with painting textiles – in particular, the landscape-like forms they assume when draped or folded. She graduated from the RCA in 1971, winning the Anstruther Prize for painting.
Life after college began with a flat in a mansion block in Brixton, which had space for a studio, and a job with a printer in Streatham. An opportunity to show her work soon arose: the gallery-owner Basil Jacobs had seen her paintings at the RCA and displayed some in his Bruton Street gallery in 1972-73. Her first solo show came soon after, in Stuttgart in 1975. This was a success, and her time in Germany was made memorable also by her discovery of Otto Dix and a visit to Colmar to see Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece. There were further solo shows in Europe: at Robert Noortman in Maastricht, in 1989 and 1990. In the UK she exhibited with Fischer Fine Art from 1979 to 1981, and from 1993 to 1997 with Christie’s Contemporary Art in London and elsewhere. Her work was represented in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1993, 1995 and 2003. In 1998 she had her first solo exhibition at the Chris Beetles Gallery and has shown there regularly ever since.
For most of the 1970s and 1980s Val Archer combined painting with teaching. She is characteristically modest about this. ‘It used to worry me’, she says. ‘I used to worry I wasn’t good enough’. Nevertheless, she enjoyed a long association with Sheffield College of Art, which led to her Stuttgart exhibition, and has taught at Wolverhampton and Lanchester Polytechnics and Winchester, Cheltenham, Cardiff and Goldsmiths’ College Schools of Art.
Since 1990 Val Archer’s name has become known to a wider public through her work in newspapers, magazines and books. For three years her paintings accompanied food and cookery articles in the Sunday Telegraph and the BBC Good Food magazine. Two books on fruit appeared in 1993 and 1994, and she also illustrated one of Nigel Slater’s early cookery books. Her most recent publication is The Painter, the Cook and the Art of Cucina (2007), a collaboration with the Italian cookery writer Anna del Conte which explores the culinary traditions of six regions of Italy.
Travel has long been a pleasure and a source of inspiration for her: in recent years she has tended to stay close to the Mediterranean. After a visit to the painter Joe Tilson in Tuscany in 1999 she bought a house and studio nearby and she now paints both there and at her home in Clapham. Her studios are spacious and beautiful, the workspace of someone who values order and efficiency. Apart from the tools of her trade they contain little – minimal furniture, some books, a small collection of objects which may become subjects. She likes to have music playing as she paints and begrudges time spent away from her work. Looking back at her childhood she says, ‘I always painted’, and she probably always will.
Val Archer's solo shows at the Chris Beetles Gallery: 1998 - Val Archer (inaugural show) 2001 - Val Archer 2001 2007 - The Painter, the Cook and the Art of Cucina 2011 - Touching the Surface of Time 2012 - An Italian Summer 2014 - Travels with my Art 2016 - The Still Moment 2019 - The Seasons 2019 - Places and Culture (Nunnington Hall, Yorkshire) 2021 - Natural Values