This lot is unframed.
AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION OF WORKS BY ARCHIBALD THORBURN AND CHARLES FREDERICK TUNNICLIFFE, R.A.
(lots 16 - 121)
ARCHIBALD THORBURN (1860-1935) and THOMAS LITTLETON POWYS, 4TH BARON LILFORD (1833-1896)
The present series of works by Archibald Thorburn represent one of the finest collections of the artist to have appeared on the market. Commissioned by Lord Lilford for his seminal Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Islands, Thorburn ended up completing 268 out of the 421 plates, after Johannes Keulemans who had originally been commissioned to produce the illustrations, became ill; it was a formidable task that was to take all of ten years to complete, finishing in 1897. His first plates appeared in 1888, and were such a success that demand for the book (subscribed to in issues) increased threefold.
As opposed to producing purely scientific ornithological studies, Thorburn presented the readers with an unsentimental aestheticism, one that placed his subjects in their natural environments and captured the beauty and poetry of nature. He often visited Lilford's aviary and executed sketches which ensured his subjects came across not as specimens of taxidermy, but as living creatures, animated in their surroundings.
That the works received such high appreciation from Lord Lilford, a gifted patron and minutely critical judge, would have no doubt pleased Thorburn. Lilford was exact in his expectations, and was content with nothing less than perfection in every detail. This is apparent in their correspondence, where Lilford would point out if the 'inner toe was a little foreshortened', that 'the iris should be a shade lighter in colour' or 'the angle of the eye is rather too acute'. Expression was also of paramount importance to Lilford, who would, for example, issue Thorburn with complex instructions such as to give a bird 'an expression of seeing something far off.' He was equally emphatic that the natural environment of each specimen should be captured.
The illustrations perfectly represent a convergence of Lilford's perfectionism and Thorburn's artistic ability, with a mutual appreciation for the poetry and sublime beauty of nature. This is encapsulated in a paragraph in a letter from patron to artist:
[I am] delighted with your beautiful picture of the eagle. You have not only admirably portrayed the characteristic aspect of the bird, but thrown in an element of poetry into the work that is not often attained, and it deserves all praise.
Perhaps the greatest and most measurable tribute to Thorburn and Lilford is the fact that the works are still among the most loved and widely reproduced bird pictures in Britain. Their exceptional quality, timeless beauty and meticulous detail, combine science and ornithology with art, in a way that few artists before or subsequently have succeeded in doing.
Lilford, Thomas Littleton Powys, 4th Baron (1833-1896), Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Islands, London: Taylor and Francis, for R. H. Porter, 1895-97, vol. I, pl. 1.