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, the younger Thorburn took a delight in drawing, filling numerous sketchbooks with studies of flora and fauna. Such direct observation from nature was to form the foundation of his art, for although he briefly attended the St. John's Wood School of Art, Thorburn received little formal training. His career as a painter of birds began in 1883 when he completed 144 plates for W.F. Swayland'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's work created such an impact as he 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 which had suffered at the hands of taxidermists, Thorburn, inspired by Joseph Wolf's ablilty to capture an 'indescribable feeling of life and movement' when depicting 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 Loch 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.
Although he exhibited at the Royal Academy throughout the 1880s and 1890s, Thorburn had become disillusioned with the institution and showed instead at A. Baird Carter at 70 Jermyn Street, SW1, and with his agents in Blackburn and Newcastle.
Although Thorburn occasionally worked in oil he found watercolour the most expressive medium with which to capture his subject's likeness. Thorburn's direct observation of birds' eyes and feet, the softness of their plumage, and the balance which they exhibit both in the air and land, have brought delight to successive generations of collectors.