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ARCHIBALD THORBURN (1860-1935)
Lots 26-28, 107-108, 111, 113
More than seventy years after his death, Archibald Thorburn's depictions of British birdlife and mammals are as popular today as they were with previous sportsmen and birdlovers. Whilst many artists have emulated him, few have captured so realistically the glint in an eye or the sheen that he studied so intently. His works are still the best loved, and most widely reproduced, wildlife pictures in Britain.
Archibald Thorburn was born at Viewfield House, Lasswade, near Edinburgh, the fifth son of Robert Thorburn, a miniaturist who numbered Queen Victoria amongst his patrons. Although he briefly attended the St. John's Wood School of Art, Thorburn received little formal training. His career as a painter of birds, which became his most popular subject matter, began in 1883, at the age of twenty-three, when he completed 144 plates for W.F. Swaysland's Familiar Wild Birds, but his reputation was secured through his contribution to Lord Lilford's magisterial survey Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Islands published between 1885 and 1898.
Thorburn was one of the first British wildlife artists to go into the field and take sketches from life. Whilst his contemporaries were sketching birds from examples that had suffered at the hands of taxidermists, Thorburn, inspired by Joseph Wolf's ability to capture 'an indescribable feeling of life and movement' when depicting his subjects, keenly observed his specimens in their natural habitat. In the words of John Southern, Thorburn was the first to combine scientific accuracy with 'the fresh softness of the living bird'.
Although Thorburn moved to London in 1885, he made regular sketching tours of the British Isles, seeking inspiration for his work. In 1889, he first visited the Forest of Gaick in Invernesshire, the setting for almost all his depictions of ptarmigan and red deer, and he became a frequent guest of John Henry Dixon at Inveran on Lock Maree in Rosshire. Thorburn's Scottish watercolours are remarkable for their sense of time and place, and their ability to capture season and weather.
Following his marriage to Constance Mudie, Thorburn moved to High Leybourne, near Hascombe in west Surrey, in 1902. There he established an undisturbed routine of sketching on his morning walk, and then working these sketches into finished compositions in his studio until the light failed. His output was prolific and his style varied little between 1895 and 1930.
By the 1890s, Thorburn had become disillusioned with the British Institution and showed instead at A. Baird Carter at 70 Jermyn Street, SW1, and with his agents in Blackburn and Newcastle.
Although he occasionally worked in oil, Thorburn found watercolour the most expressive medium with which to capture his subject's likeness. 'He succeeded where others have faltered because he unsparingly gave his entire life to a minutely detailed and orderly study of our wildlife and it's ways, relentlessly prising the deepest secrets from Nature herself in all her changeable moods' (J. Southern, Thorburn's Landscape, London, 1981, p. 15). His unique sketches from life set him apart from his contemporaries, providing him with the basis from which to create works that have brought delight to successive generations of collectors.