Archibald Thorburn was born on 31st May 1860 at Lasswade near Edinburgh. He became Britain’s, and some would say the world’s wildlife artist of all time. By the age of thirty in 1890 he was regarded as the best to have been seen in Britain, and that reputation has remained intact and unchallenged ever since. He was the fifth son of the famous miniaturist Robert Thorburn who was a great favourite of Queen Victoria. The young Archibald received much of his early training from his father, whose insistence upon Anatomical accuracy and careful attention to detail was to stand the young man in good stead throughout his life. Thorburn painted Queen Victoria three times and also painted the famous portrait of Prince Albert, which Victoria always kept upon her table.
Even as a child Thorburn showed exceptional artistic talent and by the age of twelve was already producing some exquisite little watercolours and pen and ink drawings that heralded much promise for the future. One of his earliest and enduring loves was that of wild flowers and we see this discreetly though beautifully expressed in all his work.
In 1883 Thorburn’s first published coloured plates appeared in W F Swaysland’s familiar Wild Birds and his last, posthumously, in 1937 in Archer & Godman’s The Birds of British Somaliland and the Gulf of Aden.
Thorburn first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1880 when he was 20 and continued to do so until 1900. His entries were invariably huge, compelling and technically brilliant. He painted in watercolours and his subjects were of grouse, deer or eagles.
The work he carried out for Lord Lilford between 1885 in which he completed some 268 superlative watercolours for Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Islands, brought to the world for the very first time a perfect blend of art and science, as his birds technically correct in every detail remained soft, round, delicate and alive. Thorburn’s place in bird art was established beyond doubt.
Thorburn’s pictures, unlike many of the period, remain free from sentimentality, his creatures restless, wild and free. With deft touch and great economy, he cleverly captured the rigours of life in the countryside, be it by mountain tarn or lowland stubble. Such an approach, in the hands of such a skilful technician ensured success.