Archibald Thorburn (1860 – 1935)

Godalming  Museum has acquired a painting by Archibald Thorburn arguably the finest wildlife artist of his time – who moved to Hascombe in 1902 and lived there for the rest of his life. The painting, dated 1905, is of  Wildfowl on the Shore: Pintail, Pochard, Tufted Duck, Shelduck, Ruddy Shelduck, Brent and Barnacle Geese.

Wildfowl on the Shore by Archibald Thorburn. Image: Godalming Museum

Wildfowl on the Shore by Archibald Thorburn
Image: Godalming Museum

Archibald Thorburn was born in Edinburgh in 1860, the fifth son of Robert Thorburn, miniaturist painter to Queen Victoria . Archibald Thorburn’s first bird illustrations were published when he was 22 years old, in J E Hartings Sketches of Bird Life. Five years later he was invited to undertake the illustrations for the monumental work by Lord Lilford Coloured figures of Birds in the British Isles. This can be seen in Godalming Museums library (Tuesday to Saturday, 1 pm to 4 pm).

Young Mr Thorburn’s illustrations

When this was first published in 1888 it was observed that demand has dramatically increased upon sight of the young Mr Thorburn’s illustrations. Never before have such beautiful plates of birds been seen and the success of his Lordships volumes seems firmly assured.   Buyers of the Observer Book of British Birds are seldom aware that many of its illustrations are those painted by Archibald Thorburn, some 100 years earlier.  He exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and illustrated the first Christmas card issued by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 1899.  Between then and 1935, he illustrated 19 of their Christmas cards and donated them to the Society.

Thorburn relied solely on natural light

Archibald Thorburn lived at High Leybourne in Hascombe. In 1930 it was reported that Mr Thorburn, the well known Surrey naturalist and bird artist, steadfastly refuses to install electricity at his lovely home in Hascombe. As a painter he relies solely on natural light, working long hours indeed in the summer months, but much shorter ones in the brief days of winter.  Just occasionally he resorts to the use of oil lamps, especially if drawing mice in the dimness of his garden shed.

Archibald Thorburn died at High Leybourne in October 1935 and his grave is at St John the Baptist church, Busbridge, Godalming.

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