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Archibald Thorburn

An Edwardian blend of art and science.

The two most posthumously published bird artists, Jean-Jacques Audubon (1785–1851) and Archibald Thorburn (1860–1935), could not have been more different in character and career. The flamboyant Audubon was born in today’s Haiti, the illegitimate son of a French sea captain. Thorburn, born nine miles south of Edinburgh, was the fifth son of portrait miniaturist Robert Thorburn, a favorite of Queen Victoria (whom he painted thrice) and Prince Albert, whose image he famously pictured on ivory dressed as a medieval knight.

Audubon tramped the American wilderness shooting his winged specimens, and battled bankruptcy his entire life. The shy but shrewd Thorburn experienced early success as an illustrator for naturalists and as a watercolor artist lauded by landed sportsmen; his wife described his quiet life as “a smooth deep river flowing forever serenely on.” Thorburn painted from live models, and was often invited to shooting parties on the great estates of East Anglia, Blenheim Palace, Sandringham, and Balmoral by his patrons, including King Edward VII and King George. He carried a gun while sketching in Scottish deer forests, but put it away forever after wounding a hare and witnessing its agony.

By age six, Thorburn already showed artistic talent, and under the stern guidance of his father, who insisted he master anatomy and pay strict attention to detail, he was producing exquisite pen and ink drawings and watercolors of twigs with leaves and flowers by age 12. Including lively flora in his bird art would become a defining aspect of his oeuvre.

He received some art education at school in Dalkeith, Midlothian, and later in Edinburgh. But unlike his father, who attended the Royal Academy of Arts, Archibald only briefly took courses at London’s new St. John’s Wood Art School, the training grounds of various Victorian Pre-Raphaelite painters. Thorburn credited his overbearing father, who tore up any unsatisfactory work, as his best teacher. Robert also instilled in his son the discipline to work (after a cold shower and oat porridge) from dawn until dusk, six days a week.

After Robert died in 1885 and Archibald moved to London, he studied under German-born Joseph Wolf (1820–1899), natural history illustrator for the British Museum and Zoological Society of London, whose gifted draftsmanship, plein-air methods, and subjects set in their natural surroundings conveyed an innovative feeling of dynamic movement, earning him the accolade, “The Father of Modern Wildlife Art.”

Thorburn went further and placed his subjects in the context of their countryside as perceived from their very low or high-flying bird’s-eye perspective. This also provided an unsentimental and objective narrative in the spirit of “scientific asceticism,” for example, representing game birds taking flight at the threat of hunters over the hill.

Whether chasing game with a sketchpad and pencil, or carefully observing airborne red grouse over heather-covered moors, partridge families feeding on frozen winter fens, bright-eyed blackcock and greyhens on their leks or raiding the crofter’s oat stubble, Thornburn’s approach was radically different from the tradition of working with spiritless, flattened bird skins, or grotesquely stuffed, inaccurately posed, and faded taxidermy specimens.

After his marriage, in 1902 Thornburn moved to a secluded 15-acre estate in High Leybourne near Hascombe, a region made famous by garden designer Gertrude Jekyll in her memoirs, Old West Surrey. His many watercolors of pheasant and woodcock took place in the leafy glades and forests near Godalming, although he regularly replenished his references in Scotland. His study sheets capture images of ptarmigan, capercaillie, and black grouse in every posture, from every angle. He sought red stag perched on corries or bugling across glens, caught in swirling weather on the woodland slopes and desolate Highland landscapes of Gaick near Kingussie, Inverness-shire; Inveran, Loch Maree, Ross-shire; and Dundarach, Pitlochry, Perthshire.

From age 20, and for the next 20 years, Thorburn exhibited his dramatic, often monumental watercolors at the Royal Academy, more than half aimed at attracting sportsmen, such as The Lost Stag—Red Deer and Golden Eagles (29½ x 46 inches). Today, these command monumental prices: Grouse in Flight (29½ x 51¾) sold for $335,000 in 2010, and Blackcock and Grouse in Flight—Winter (approx. 36 x 55), close to $300,000 in 2012.

But when his grand tableaux were hung too high for proper lighting and viewing he became disillusioned, and turned more to private commissions. He began exhibiting at A. Baird-Carter gallery on London’s fashionable Jermyn Street, which became W. F. Embleton in 1919. They issued sepia-tone proof (and hand-colored) or four-color process sets of three to 12 prints of deer, wildfowl, and game birds, with edition sizes of around 300. Embleton himself would venture fortnightly to Hascombe to watch the fast-working Thorburn sitting at his easel, and return to London with a finished command.

His hunting-set patrons included such sporting “heroes” as the shooting-obsessed Lord Ripon (Viceroy of India from 1880-84), who killed a staggering half-million game birds and ground game between 1867 and 1923. In 1911, Lord Ripon wrote of Thorburn: “To him the crow of the grouse as he speeds along the purple heather, or the guttural note of the pheasant as he flies across the crimson sky on a winters afternoon, brings with them a joyous exultation. . . .” He illustrated articles, such as Lord Walsingham on shooting partridge, and contributed seven colored plates on driven hunts for game birds and deer for Alfred E. T. Watson’s King Edward VII as a Sportsman.

Across Europe and in America, the 19 th century was an era of passionate collecting, classifying, and illustrating comprehensive monographs and field guides on everything from ferns and seashells to dinosaur bones. This mindset, combined with advancements in print technology that began with chromolithography in 1820 and culminated with offset printing in 1903, drew numerous artists to London. This resulted in a plethora of artfully illustrated scientific material becoming widely available at a lower cost. John Gould’s (1804–1881) birds are among the most familiar. But his skill consisted of making rapid, insightful sketches from fresh-killed specimens. These were then executed by his wife or artists like Wolf, who wrote that Gould knew nothing about composition.

At 22, Thorburn received his first major ornithological commission: 144 lithographs (completed over 13 years) for naturalist and taxidermist Walter Swaysland’s four-volume Familiar Wild Birds. He achieved fame at 26, when the eccentric Dutch artist J. G. Keulemans (1842–1912) fell ill and was replaced by Thorburn, who produced 268 chromolithographs (out of 421) for Lord Lilford’s prodigious seven-volume Coloured Figures of the Birds of British Islands (1885–1898). Working from Lilford’s aviaries in Northamptonshire, and in the London Zoo at Regent’s Park, Thorburn’s finely designed and executed plates surpassed Keulemans’s, which resulted in subscriptions increasing threefold.

He illustrated six of Augustus Grimble’s hunting books, including Highland Sport, and the partridge, grouse, and pheasant books for H. A. McPherson’s 12-part Fur, Feather and Fin series. In addition to contributing to fellow artist J. G. Millais’s The Natural History of British Game Birds (1909), among others, Thorburn began (imperfectly) writing and illustrating his own books, including the hugely successful four-volume British Birds. Because the illustrations were printed by a color halftone process, a method that depends on photography rather than lithography, his original watercolors could be reproduced at any size. Reprinted numerous times in various editions, Thorburn’s bird images are familiar to many an old twitcher.

Four books followed: The Naturalist’s Sketch Book, a loose folio of 12 plates in a limited edition of 150; Birds of Prey; British Mammals; and Game Birds and Wild-fowl of Great Britain and Ireland.

Thorburn painted in his airy studio only by the natural light, or by oil lamp in winter, but never under electric bulbs; he hated electricity—and motorcars. He used top quality cartridge paper, mellowed slightly by age to better absorb his Windsor & Newton pigments, on which he built up his watercolor washes, confidently applied with increasingly more water loaded on his sable brushes, along with rich opaque gouache that the British call “bodycolor.” He used highlights and bold shadows not only to establish the mood of season or weather, but also to shape and form his subject. Sometimes he painted on tinted paper, which is faster to highlight with paint than with the pure white paper’s surface.

Whether winter bracken, fall larches, or lichen, his vegetation and sense of scale, with specks of red grouse flying in or strings of deer in the distance, complete the composition.

For 18 of his last 35 years, Thorburn painted the Christmas cards for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which were enlivened by the verses of Poet Laureates. Today, their battery-fueled singing cards bear good but charmless photographs. O for the golden age of ornithology, when art and science were one.

Brooke Chilvers thanks the good people of Richard Green galleries in London, and especially senior researcher Susan Morris, for taking the time to dig out old catalogs and images of Thorburn’s game-themed watercolors.


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