Archie White says he would like to retire, but I’m not sure I believe him. This summer he made headlines when he graduated with a fine art degree from East Sussex College. He was 96 years and 56 days old – a few months short of setting a new world record for the oldest graduate.
Graduation was only the beginning. “I’m pretty busy all the time,” he says. A former solicitor, he still does consultancy work on the side and is “painting furiously to meet the demands of studios”. On top of that, he is in the process of co-founding a charity, GradAid, with East Sussex College.
As a student, White attended a degree show where he bought “a delightful piece of pottery”. However, when he turned it over to look underneath, he was surprised to find there were no marks made by the artist on the base – “no name or date” – for anyone wishing to buy more. Graduates were left to depart the nurturing environment of the college without much forward support or “notion of professional help … [Many students] don’t have space for a studio, no money to hire or rent one.” Without assistance, he says, “they are lost, to the detriment of society … We are cruel not to think of their futures.”
To that end, he has negotiated with East Sussex College to make studio space and equipment available to graduates for a few years. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a spare bedroom to convert into an art studio, as White has done in his flat in Rye, close to the south coast. He likes to sit and paint what he sees through the window – “the river, the people passing”. His red trousers are so splattered with oil paint that they are multicoloured.
It doesn’t sound a million miles away from his earliest artistic ventures: as a teenager he went on forays into the Devon countryside with his older sister, Kitty – although he used watercolour paints then. Off they would go for the day – to the local reservoir, its slopes a carpet of pink orchids in spring, or to Steps bridge over the river Dart (White’s favourite), or to Sir Francis Drake’s house – with their pochade boxes of paints and collapsible stools. “Everywhere we went was lovely.”
Yet for decades, while White worked as a solicitor, art slipped out of his life. He next picked up a sketchbook, age 72, after he sold his practice, when he and his late wife Joan “decided to splurge our capital and tour the world”. On their travels, he sketched or took photographs – including of the Drake Passage, the body of water at the southern tip of Chile, which must have reminded him of those watercolour expeditions with Kitty.
So why did he return to art after five decades? “Simply because I had never lost it,” he says. “The art I did in my youth must have been a strong memory which motivated me, without my recognising the cause.” Kitty, a dress and stage designer, died before White took up the brushes again. “She never knew I was painting,” he says. “That’s a curious thought.”
Now, two galleries in East Sussex would like to sell White’s work. “I feel that every canvas is an experience on the road to professionalism,” he says. But has a degree in fine art made a difference to him? “I suppose it signifies that I’ve done something,” he says. “I don’t think that the duty of a university is to change people. Unless it’s to broaden their outlook or understanding.”
Presumably, founding GradAid is proof of that. “But the more you learn, surely the greater your feeling of your own insignificance.”
White says that his “has been a lovely life”, and I wonder what more he would like to do, beyond setting up the charity. “I don’t know what I want, but I know that I need a lot more time.”