Archibald Thorburn was born in 1860, near Edinburgh, the
fifth son of the miniaturist Robert Thorburn ARA. He is now
acknowledged as one of the greatest painters of birdlife of
It was perhaps from his father that Archibald Thorburn
acquired the ability to create his minutely detailed
paintings and he sketched from a very early age. He painted
birds, animals and flowers but he specialised in the study
of game birds, as he had a tremendous knowledge of
Thorburn received little formal artistic training but his
career as a painter of birds began in 1883, when he
completed 144 plates for WF Swaysland’s Familiar Wild Birds.
However, his reputation was firmly established by his
contribution to Lord Lilford’s magisterial survey Coloured
Figures of the Birds of the British Isles, which was
published between 1885 and 1898.
Thorburn’s work created such an impact because he was one of
the first British wildlife artists to paint and sketch in
the open and from life, rather than in a studio and from
stuffed samples. Although he moved to London in 1885, he
continued to make sketching tours of Britain throughout his
He first exhibited at the Royal Academy at the age of 20,
and was a regular figure there throughout the 1880s and
1890s. At the end of the 1890s he became disillusioned with
the Academy and exhibited instead at A Baird Carter, in
Jermyn Street. Thorburn was also sufficiently
highly-regarded by his contemporaries to have been asked to
paint Queen Victoria on three separate occasions.
Generally preferring to work in watercolour, Thorburn’s
skill, artistic talent and scientific observation ensured
that he was recognised as one of the leading artists of his
time. He died in 1935.