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. From an early age he sketched flora and fauna from nature, the practice formed the basis for his art, as Thorburn was one of the first British wildlife artists to go into the field to observe his specimens in their natural habitat and sketch them from life. His career as a painter of birds began in 1883 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, 1885-1898.
Thorburn moved to London in 1885 and after his marriage to Constance Mudie in 1902, he moved to High Leybourne, near Hascombe, Surrey. There he established an undisturbed routine of sketching on his morning walk and working up these sketches into finished compositions in his studio. Although he occasionally worked in oil he found watercolour the most expressive medium with which to capture his subjects' likeness.