Story: Fisher, Archibald Joseph Charles

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Fisher, Archibald Joseph Charles

1896–1959

Artist, art school director

This biography was written by Roger Blackley and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Archibald Joseph Charles Fisher was born on 15 June 1896 at Dudley, Worcestershire, England, the son of Edmund Scambler Fisher, a jeweller, and his wife, Thirza Wilkinson. Archie studied fine arts at the Birmingham Municipal School of Art in 1918 and later at the Royal College of Art, London, where he became a protégé of Augustus John and graduated ARCA. On 2 September 1921, while still a student, Fisher married Frances Elizabeth Bird (known as Jane) at the Chelsea Register Office, London; they were to have a daughter and a son.

In September 1924 Fisher took up an appointment as director of Auckland’s Elam School of Art. Sporting flannels in place of tweeds, the young Fisher represented a radical change from the inaugural director, E. W. Payton, who had been at Elam since 1890. Fisher believed that draughtsmanship and design were essential to the success of a painter: design ‘expressed the emotion of the artist’. He had no time for the exhibitionist or for slipshod work and insisted that his students should develop and think for themselves.

Soon after his arrival, Fisher outraged Aucklanders by condemning the collection on display at the city’s art gallery. His public apology ended with the assurance, ‘I am not a supercilious Englishman’. Nevertheless, England was asked for support if the going got tough. In 1927, when his teaching methods came under attack from the school’s board, Fisher sent a selection of his students’ work to Sir William Rothenstein at the Royal College of Art. Rothenstein praised the results of his ex-pupil’s teaching approach.

Rather than assert himself as an exhibiting artist, Fisher assumed the role of critic. He gave public lectures on art at the WEA, in which he honoured masters such as Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael while disparaging his Victorian predecessors. The reviews and commentaries he wrote for Art in New Zealand confirm his commitment to modernism and reveal his ‘constructional’ approach to drawing and composition. In a 1934 review he wrote, ‘I think painters should comment upon contemporary life’.

Along with other Elam staff, including A. R. D. Fairburn, Arnold Goodwin and A. Lois White, Archie Fisher was decidedly left wing in his politics. As well as being involved with the WEA, which sponsored adult education with a distinctly radical bias, he was connected with Goodwin’s People’s Theatre, a left-wing theatrical group with strong ties to Elam. He also campaigned for the Labour party.

Fisher was a supporter of the large-scale mural paintings that flourished briefly in post-war Auckland in the hands of May Smith, James Turkington and Lois White. He was involved in the 1946 gift to the WEA of ‘Controversy’, White’s most famous mural, which he claimed was ‘the only real mural on traditional lines to be found in New Zealand’. In 1951–52 Fisher and White participated in a mural-for-schools programme, of which the ‘Magna Carta’ at Southwell School, Hamilton, was the only realised example.

Fisher was also the mentor for the New Group, an exhibiting collective formed in Auckland in 1948 which was an essentially conservative group of Elam teachers and graduates. He opened their first show with a denunciation of abstraction. The New Group exhibitions, as a platform for Fisher’s artistic ideals, were criticised for their ‘homogeneity’ of production, and for being ‘more conservative than radical – aesthetically speaking’.

Criticism of Elam stepped up from January 1952 with the arrival of Eric Westbrook as director of the Auckland Art Gallery. Discussing a secondary-school art exhibition in 1953, Westbrook said, ‘Frankly, I’m horrified at this prospect of some of the talent we see on these walls going into that sausage-machine’. In 1955, shortly before leaving to take up a position as director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Westbrook identified Fisher as one of a group of plotters attempting to get control of the Auckland Art Gallery. Fisher, who had come in as a radical, was now firmly labelled a reactionary.

In 1953 Fisher made a return trip to England, but found it an alienating experience. Writing back to Rex Fairburn, he referred to himself as a ‘full blooded pig islander’. ‘Rembrandt or Titian or Tintoretto or El Greco’, he said, ‘would not have stayed in this bloody place five minutes – they would have emigrated to New Zealand’. The highlight of his European sojourn was a trip to Madrid and Toledo (the El Greco trail) in the company of his friend Arthur Sewell, from Auckland.

By the mid 1950s Fisher’s health had collapsed and he was frequently absent from Elam on sick leave. He died in Auckland on 7 November 1959, survived by his wife and children. An Auckland Star columnist described him as ‘a most outspoken man with strong views on many things, and he made enemies, for he had an uncompromising regard for what he considered to be the truth’.

Fisher’s pastel portrait of Edmund Hillary, which hangs in the assembly hall of Auckland Grammar School, is probably the best known of his works. He is remembered as a teacher rather than as an artist, and very few of his works are in public collections. His greatest achievement was the transformation of the Elam School of Art from the day school for adolescents he inherited in 1924 to a full department of Auckland University College in 1950.