Ptarmigan seeking shelter signed and dated 'A. Thorburn/1927.' (lower right) watercolour and gouache 37.5 x 56cm (14 3/4 x 22 1/16in).
Archibald Thorburn grew up in Viewfield House on the outskirts of Lasswade, a rural village to the southeast of Edinburgh. His father Robert Thorburn, an artist himself, was an exacting man and demanded the highest accuracy, ripping up any of his son's weaker sketches. Thorburn soon became highly skilled at producing accurate renderings of the British wildlife, aided no doubt by his countless jaunts through the Scottish countryside and in the the 1880's produced a number of plates for Lord Litford's Coloured figures of the Birds of the British Isles of which he would eventually produce seven volumes up to 1898.
A further advancement in Thorburn's abilities can be seen after his move to London in 1885, which exposed him to the work of other artists and primarily that of the German born artist Joseph Wolf (1820-1899). Wolf was to become a huge influence on Thorburn and his insistence on sketching birds and animals from life in the wild as opposed to in the nearby zoo, would have confirmed the young artist's own experience. After Wolf's death, Thorburn wrote:
"Wolf's work is not only faultless as regards truth to nature, but there is, besides, an indescribable feeling of life and movement never attained by any other artist".
Thorburn particularly admired the pathos with which Wolf imbued his paintings, the 'sympathy for the suffering bird or beast...the terror-stricken Ptarmigan striving to escape the glance of the marauding eagle'. Thorburn's best work exhibits this same level of drama and is a testament to Wolf's influence upon him.
Thorburn regularly returned to Scotland to sketch in the wild inaccessible hills and it was during his first trip in 1883 that he saw his first Ptarmigan. In 1902 he moved to Surrey and spent his days roaming the woods at Dunsford and Juniper Valley where he spotted his lowland dwelling subjects such as pheasants and woodcock. He was to gain a solid reputation among the great sporting men of the day for the accuracy of these renderings and his attention to detail with regard to the form, colouring and the plumage of game birds.
The turn of the century brought in a golden age of British shooting with advancements in rearing and driving techniques allowing greater numbers to be shot, particularly on the larger shoots. The Prince of Wales' own enthusiasm for the sport added a grand element and initiated the formalisation of shooting party rituals and etiquette. An invitation to a day's shoot at one of the great estates such as Sandringham was an essential element to any worth-while social calendar and up to 3,000 birds might be shot on any one day during such an occasion.
While Thorburn flirted briefly with the sport himself, he became disillusioned with the killing of birds after 1900 and the focus of his attention became to satisfy the strong demand among the great shots of the day for depictions of game birds. Among his wealthier clients were Edward VII and George V who served him well as patrons, contributors and even occasionally as subjects themselves.
It can be said with surety that the peak of Thorburn's career lasted for almost 40 years, coming to maturity as it did in the 1890s and declining only as the result of an operation, after 1930. During this long period Thorburn reproduced all manner of species and used many of his finished watercolours as plates for Thorburn's Birds and Mammals (from which the individual extracts on the following pages are taken). Through his work Thorburn succeeded in capturing a golden age of the British countryside, paying homage to the rough country and the gamekeeper's land alike. He was notoriously old-fashioned in his methods, favouring his old oil lamps over electricity and he refused to bend to modern advancements such as the motorcar. He was even undisturbed by the Great War and simply lived his life by the changing season, dependent on them as he was, for his subjects.
The following selection of watercolours can be argued to be among Thorburn's best work and serve as a wonderful reminder of a bygone era.