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Archibald Thorburn (1860 – 1935)


Archibald Thorburn (1860 – 1935)

Archibald Thorburn (1860 – 1935) is one of Britain’s best known watercolour artists, particularly known for his pictures of birds and mammals placed in beautiful harmonious landscapes.

Thorburn was a great watercolourist and is certainly recognised as Britain’s best ever natural history painter. He had a unique talent of placing his well rendered and scientifically correct subjects in natural harmonious surroundings that represented a step change in wildlife art at the turn of the century. His major contribution to Lord Lilford’s survey ‘Coloured Figures of The Birds of The British Isles’ (1885–1898) early in his career, not only sealed the successful fate of the book, but his reputation as one of the best bird painters of his generation.

Archibald Thorburn was an inspiration for me as a youngster, in fact, I saved for weeks to buy a set of books illustrated by him - T A Cowards three-volume The Birds of the British Isles and their eggs (1920–25) - long acknowledged as being the book that did more to popularise the study of birds than any other publication produced during the first part of the twentieth century. It was revised by Arnold Boyd for a new edition in 1950.

I used it along side my Observer book of Birds to gain knowledge - there weren’t any computers when I started my interest in birds…I had to rely on the artists observational and technical skills.

Although he started his career painting birds and mammals he soon made the decision to focus his efforts almost exclusively on depictions of birds in their natural habitat.

Painting at a time when the obvious advantages that modern artists have were not available he produced some truly beautiful and accurate depictions of his subjects. No artist past or present has been able to improve on Thorburns technique for painting a birds plumage.

Not only did he produce a prolific number of original watercolours, but contributed to scores of natural history books for authors, ornithologists and explorers of the day, also finding time to write and illustrate six of his own.

He also produced a large number of prints (the majority in partnership with publisher Baird Carter/Embleton). The quality of the prints produced during Thorburn’s prolific career is astounding and is an excellent demonstration of what could be achieved by the very skilled, but manual techniques and printing processes around the turn of the century. It was his strive for excellence that brought Thorburn into contact with the Printseller’s Association and later the Fine Art Trade Guild, organisations that only lent their embossed stamp to those deserving works of art that achieved the highest standard.

It was Baird Carter, who recognised the niche for more expensive pencil-signed proofs as opposed to the wider open editions and, in specific connection with Thorburn, also came up with the excellent market penetrating idea of the RSPB Christmas card.

Thorburn was an astute businessman and carefully selected his publishers, for originals, private commissions, prints and books. Understanding the needs of the Edwardian collector and their desire for a quality product made him seek out the most skilful practitioners in France, Germany and Austria to ensure the reproductions (i.e. etchings, engravings, lithographs, photogravures, and collotypes) were the best that could be achieved.

Many of these original prints are in immaculate condition, despite their age and still look as though they were printed yesterday.

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January 17, 2020 11:33 am

A very interesting read about a brilliant artist. Regarding the Grey Wagtail, it is such a beautiful bird. It’s a shame its name doesn’t really match this gorgeous little bird!

Cynthia Reyes
January 23, 2020 2:57 am

What a gorgeous painting. And he sounds like what we artists all wish we could be: excellent at our art, but great businesspeople too!

April 28, 2020 6:46 pm

You are so right about his way of painting the plumage. So difficult to get right. My artist friend is developing her skills with this and on special Chinese rice paper. Her wing feathers of a swallow were amazing and then splodge too much for the body! I will stick to writing but would love to draw birds. Hope all going well for you in this lockdown time.

Reply to  Clive Bennett
May 1, 2020 4:40 pm

We are fine here but know of a close family friend who is in intensive care so very worrying Day by day.

May 3, 2020 6:58 am

Beautiful bird! Interesting post about the artist

April 3, 2021 11:34 pm

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