Although best-known as an architect, William Archer was also a talented botanical artist. He assisted Dr Joseph Hooker at Kew Gardens with the 'Florae Tasmaniae' when he and his family were living in England in 1856-1858.
natural history painter, architect and politician, was born in Launceston, Van Diemen’s Land, on 16 May 1820, third son of Thomas Archer of Woolmers, Longford (Tasmania), and Susannah, née Hortle. Educated locally, William was then sent to London to study architecture and surveying under William Rogers. After four years with Rogers he moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne to work with Robert Stephenson, the celebrated engineer. In 1842, while still in England, he designed a large stained-glass window for his family church in Van Diemen’s Land, Christ Church of England, Longford. This liturgical east window depicting Christ and the four evangelists in its five panels was manufactured by William Wailes of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Returning to Van Diemen’s Land in October 1842, Archer designed the window’s timber tracery and supervised its installation. The church was officially opened by Bishop F.R. Nixon on 6 October 1844.
William Archer spent most of the following five years on the family property, Woolmers, assisting his father in its management. He is believed to have designed a new Italianate wing for the house soon after his return and he certainly designed the kitchen wing of 1847 and various outbuildings. Known ecclesiastical designs include the Wesleyan Chapel at Patterson’s Plains (St Leonard’s)—'a particularly neat specimen of the Italian style’, according to the Launceston Examiner of 2 December 1846—and the former St Peter’s Church of England at St Leonards (1847, demolished), known only from a painting by Rev. Henry Plow Kane, its first incumbent. He also designed an Independent Chapel in 1847 for the Hunting Ground near Dysart (now used as a machinery store) and erected a temporary brick church at Hagley the same year. He designed an Anglican church for Deloraine in 1853 (disused) and he probably made alterations to the Church of the Good Shepherd at Hadspen in about 1858.
Archer’s experience in church designing – including a cathedral design while in England (unlocated) – soon led Bishop Nixon to appoint him Tasmanian diocesan architect. Most of his official ecclesiastical work was fairly minor, however, apart from the design of the Hutchins School at Hobart Town (1847 49), an important stone building of symmetrical plan and pattern-book Tudor detailing relating to English 'Commissioners’ Gothic’ ecclesiastical work of the 1830s. He may also have designed the first buildings for Horton College, Ross, in 1850 (built 1852 55, demolished), which were in a similarly plain Tudor style.
Archer’s domestic work in northern Tasmania included his own home, Cheshunt, near Deloraine, which he moved into in 1848. Having married his first cousin, Ann Hortle, in 1846, he needed a separate residence for his growing family. He built a new house on the property in 1852 and this became the family home until 1873. Many of his minor commissions were for the family: additions to his brother Joseph’s house, Fairfield (completed 1854), possibly Saundridge house and chapel near Poatina in north-east Tasmania for his cousin Robert (1850s), a wrought-iron portico on his uncle’s home, Brickendon (1857), a marble obelisk at Panshanger in memory of his uncle Joseph (1855), and a nursery wing for Panshanger House itself (1863). He designed a tombstone at Ross (carved by the convict sculptor Daniel Herbert for £12) in memory of his daughter Jessie (d. 1860). His most elaborate work was the design of Mona Vale at Ross for his brother-in-law Robert Quayle Kermode. This Victorian Italianate mansion, one of Australia’s largest country houses, took three years to build (1865 68).
Although best-known as an architect, William Archer was also a talented botanical artist. He assisted Dr Joseph Hooker at Kew Gardens with the Florae Tasmaniae when he and his family were living in England in 1856 58 and contributed many drawings to the volume. Hooker dedicated the book to Archer and his fellow Tasmanian R.C. Gunn when it was published in 1859, noting in the preface Archer’s contribution of 'a beautiful series of drawings of Tasmanian orchids, together with 100 pounds’. The original drawings are in the archives of the Linnaean Society, London. He collected further native plants for Kew and Hooker named several after him. While in England, Archer was elected a fellow of the Linnaean Society. He noted in his diary that, despite being a colonial, he was treated as a perfect equal by the English members.
After another English visit in 1859, the Archers mainly lived in Hobart Town. There William became secretary of the Royal Society of Tasmania and contributed several articles, mainly on botany, to its Papers and Proceedings . In 1866 he was elected member for Deloraine in the House of Assembly but resigned the following year. In 1871 increasing financial problems led to a move to Melbourne where William believed he could practice professionally as an architect and thus 'provide education and society for my family’ (which by then consisted of 13 children, 12 surviving). The move was not a success and they returned to Tasmania at the beginning of 1874, moving back into Fairfield. Archer died there of tuberculosis later that year, on 15 October. He was buried in the family vault in the Longford churchyard.