Archibald Thorburn, ornithologist, painter and illustrator, died on the 9th of October, 1935.
Archibald Thorburn was a richt braw painter. He was from the old fashioned school of painting, where the artist depicts subjects from life such that you can easily recognise what they are. For many of his contemporaries, Thorburn was the greatest natural history painter Britain had produced. He was “A giant who represented the culmination of a great nineteenth century tradition and showed the way forward to greater naturalism.” His skill, artistic talent, and the quality of his scientific observation, which shines through in his paintings, mean that he is now acknowledged as one of the greatest wildlife artists of all time. Many of you will have read or at least glanced through, ‘The Observer Book of British Birds’ and been amazed at the illustrations, with their evocative and dramatic backgrounds. Pick up a copy today and you will find that those widely reproduced images of British wildlife, still popular today, were created by Thorburn over one hundred years ago. Thorburn specialised in painting birds and, although many artists have since emulated him, few have captured so realistically the glint in an eye or such a natural feeling of life and movement. His technique was initially unique as he made his sketches in the wild and painted in the open under natural light. Instead of painting stuffed birds in a studio, he keenly observed his specimens in their natural habitat. Undoubtedly, his style of painting represented a step change in wildlife art around the turn of the 20th Century.
Thorburn was a member of the British Ornithologists' Union and a Fellow of the Zoological Society. He was also a keen sportsman and excelled at depicting game birds and wildfowl as well as shooting them – but he painted them first. His paintings were technically flawless and beautifully colored. And according to John Southern, founder of the Thorburn Museum in Cornwall, Thorburn “succeeded where others have faltered because he unsparingly gave his entire life to a minutely detailed and orderly study of our wildlife and its ways, relentlessly prising the deepest secrets from Nature herself in all her changeable moods.” Thorburn sometimes worked in oils, but his favourite mediums were watercolour and gouache as he believed those were more suited to birds and their plumage. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Thorburn was also a highly skilled landscape painter, and excelled at creating evocative and often dramatic backgrounds for his subjects. In addition to painting burdies, he painted animals and flowers and Queen Victoria. Not only did he produce a prolific number of original watercolours and grisailles, but he illustrated scores of natural history books and found the time to write and illustrate six of his own.
Archibald Thorburn was born at Viewfield House in Lasswade, Midlothian, on the 31st of May, 1860. He took a delight in drawing from an early age, having inherited his father’s artistic skills and he filled numerous sketchbooks with studies of flora and fauna. Such direct observation from nature formed the foundation of his art and by the time he was twelve, he had produced some beautiful watercolour and pen and ink studies that showed his exceptional talent. He was educated at Dalkieth and in Edinburgh, but received little formal artistic training apart from a stint at the then newly founded St. John's Wood School of Art. Thorburn presented his first exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1880, where he became a regular throughout the next two decades, but his first ever bird illustrations were made later, in 1882, in J. E. Harting’s ‘Sketches of Bird Life’. The following year, he illustrated his first important ‘book of birds’. His contribution consisted of a number of plates to the first of four volumes of ‘Familiar Wild Birds’ by Walter F. Swaysland, a naturalist and taxidermist. Over the next five years, he produced a total of one hundred and forty-four individual plates, which dealt with all the familiar birds of the English countryside, from owls to sparrows.
His early accomplishment in capturing the detail of birds and their plumage brought him to the attention of Lord Lilford, who then invited Thorburn to provide illustrations for his monumental survey ‘Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Isles’. That seven-volume masterpiece, to which Thorburn eventually contributed two hundred and sixty-eight watercolour plates between 1885 and 1897, can be seen today in the library of Godalming Museum. When it was first published, it was observed that “demand has dramatically increased upon sight of the young Mr Thorburn’s illustrations. Never before have such beautiful plates of birds been seen and the success of his Lordship’s volumes seems firmly assured.” During that period, Thorburn moved to London, where he studied with Joseph Wolf and became friends with other ‘bird illustrators’; such as George Edward Lodge. Later in life, Thorburn taught guys like Otto Murray Dixon and Philip Rickman and, in 1902, he moved to High Leybourne, near Hascombe in west Surrey.
At High Leybourne, Thorburn established a routine of sketching on his morning walk and then working up finished compositions in his studio until the light failed. His obstinate reliance on natural light was amusingly reported in the following fashion, in 1930. “Mr Thorburn …steadfastly refuses to install electricity… As a painter he relies solely on natural light… Just occasionally he resorts to the use of oil lamps, especially if drawing mice in the dimness of his garden shed.” Thankfuly, Thorburn didn’t confine himself to the countryside in Surrey, where the majority of his pictures of pheasant were painted. He often visited the Forest of Gaick in Invernesshire, which was the setting for almost all his depictions of ptarmigan and red deer. We can also thank the Scottish landscape and its wonderful variations of light for many of Thorburn's watercolours, which are remarkable for their sense of time and place, and their ability to capture season and weather.
Archibald Thorburn was a keen conservationist and, in recognition of his services on behalf of bird preservation, he was elected Vice President of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. In 1899, he designed the Royal Academy’s first ever Christmas card for the RSPB, and he donated nineteen further cards between then and 1935. During his career he produced over two hundred prints, all of which are catalogued in a book by D. Waters entitled, ‘Archibald Thorburn: Artist and Illustrator – The Prints and Proofs 1889 – 1934’, published in 2009 by Langford Press. Archibald Thorburn died at High Leybourne on the 9th of October, 1935, and he was buried at St John the Baptist Church, in Busbridge, Godalming, Surrey.