Archibald Frank Nicoll was born at Lincoln, Canterbury, on 14 June 1886, the fifth of six children of Alexander Nicoll, a farmer, and his wife, Eliza Pannett. He was educated at Springston School from 1891 to 1899 and Christchurch Boys' High School from 1900 to 1902. In 1903 he joined the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand as a junior clerk and was on the staff until 1907. From 1905 to 1907 he also attended evening classes at Canterbury College School of Art, where he received several prizes and scholarships.
Nicoll was a working member of the Canterbury Society of Arts from 1905 and that year was awarded their bronze medal for a seascape in oils. He exhibited with the society annually until 1952. This long association included serving two terms on the council and one as president (1943–44). In 1908 Nicoll took up an appointment as an art instructor at Elam School of Art in Auckland. He remained on the staff until 1911, then travelled to Britain for further study, attending art classes in London. He then moved to Edinburgh to continue his studies at the Royal Scottish Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and the Edinburgh College of Art, where he taught in 1913–14.
By 1913 Nicoll had advanced his skills as a painter, made painting excursions to Holland, Belgium and France and developed a keen interest in etching. He continued to send out works annually for exhibition in New Zealand and began exhibiting at the Royal Scottish Academy and other institutions. In 1913 he exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and was elected a member of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts. Early in 1914 he received the Maclaine–Watters Medal and the Keith Prize for the most meritorious work contributed to the Royal Scottish Academy by a student.
By August 1914 Nicoll was on his way back to New Zealand on a visit, but war was declared before he arrived. He enlisted with the Field Artillery of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force on 14 December, the same day he married Ellen Ethel Fearn in Christchurch. After a period in camp, in June 1915 he left for overseas service. Until April 1916 he was stationed in Egypt where he also found time to paint. In 1916 Nicoll began active service in France. He was badly wounded on 24 September at the battle of the Somme, and his right leg had to be amputated.
After a long convalescence in England Nicoll arrived back in New Zealand in March 1918 and was reunited with his wife, who had been living with her family in Wellington. He became a member of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, serving on its council in 1918 and 1919, and worked as a relieving teacher at the Wellington Technical College. Nicoll also took a studio and began accepting portrait commissions. Over the following 34 years he completed more than 100 commissions and came to be regarded as one of New Zealand's most important portraitists.
In April 1920 Nicoll took up the position of director of Canterbury College School of Art. In the 1920s and 1930s, Nicoll's reputation as a landscape artist and strong identity as an interpreter of the Canterbury landscape in particular made him a leader of what was to become known as the 'Canterbury School'. He regularly exhibited with art societies beyond Christchurch and with the Australian Painter-Etchers' Society and the Society of Artists, Sydney, in 1928. In 1930 he exhibited for a second time at the Royal Academy, London.
Nicoll's success as a landscape painter was acknowledged in 1932 when he became a recipient of the prestigious Bledisloe Medal. At that time he was also on the advisory committee of the Robert McDougall Art Gallery. In 1928 he had resigned as director of Canterbury College School of Art to paint full time, but on the birth of his son in 1933 he decided to return to teaching and rejoined the staff of the school in 1934. He remained there until his retirement in 1945. Nicoll also served as a member of the committee of management of the National Art Gallery, Wellington, from 1941 to 1953. Official recognition of his service to art came in 1947 when he was appointed an OBE. He died at Christchurch on 1 February 1953, survived by his wife and son. (Another child, a daughter, had died young.)
A traditionalist, Nicoll held no firm philosophy of art other than to 'set down selections of shapes and colours of objects in nature'. Stylistically he was an heir to a European tradition that reached back to Velasquez, but more direct influences were the portrait genre of Henry Raeburn and George Romney and the landscapes of James Guthrie and the Glasgow School. His landscapes and portraits, though seemingly gestural, were firmly structured, the outcome of careful observation. He was a dominant personality among his contemporaries and as a teacher exerted a strong influence on two generations of Canterbury artists.