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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Offering of the Day: An Extraordinary Original Work by a Central Figure in the Field of British Bird Illustration

Archibald Thorburn (1860-1935)
Widgeon and Greyleg
Watercolor and gouache
Paper size: 20 3/4 x 16 1/2 inches
Framed size: 27 x 32 inches
Signed and dated lower right: A Thorburn 1915
$45,000

Archibald Thorburn lived in the final phase of the era of great illustrated bird books.  He was undoubtedly the most popular bird artist of his era, and contributed splendid illustrations to publications including Henry Eeles Dresser's A History of the Birds of Europe, Charles William Beebe's A Monograph of Pheasants, Leonard Irby's Ornithology of the Straits of Gibraltar, Lord Thomas Lilford's Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Isles, as well as his own books, notably British Birds and A Naturalist's Sketchbook.  This particular example of his work illustrated John Guille Millais’s British Diving Ducks. Yet his reputation rests as much, if not more, on his accomplished watercolor compositions.

Thorburn was a Scot, born at Lasswade, near Edinburgh, on 31 May 1860, the son of the miniature painter Robert Thorburn (1818-1885).  He was educated at Dalkeith and in Edinburgh before being sent by his father to the newly founded St John's Wood School of Art in London.  The first important book he illustrated was Familiar Wild Birds by Walter Swaysland, a Sussex naturalist and taxidermist; this work, published in four small volumes between 1883-1888, dealt with all the familiar birds of the English countryside from owls to sparrows, which Thorburn illustrated with one specimen to each plate, setting them with suitable foregrounds.  His accomplishment in delineating the bird and in capturing the detail and texture of its plumage immediately attracted the attention of Lord Lilford, who was in the process of publishing his major work on the birds of the British Isles, to which Thorburn eventually contributed over 250 plates.  Unlike most of the other artists of the time, Thorburn concentrated almost entirely on species native to the British Isles, rather than exotic species.  A member of the British Ornithologists' Union and Fellow of the Zoological Society, Thorburn was also a keen sportsman, and it was in his depiction of game birds and wildfowl that he truly excelled.  He died at Hascombe, near Godalming in Surrey, on 9 October 1935.

This masterful watercolor is an important example of Thorburn's most outstanding work.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, Thorburn was a highly skilled landscape painter and excelled at creating evocative, often dramatic backgrounds for his subjects.  Technically flawless and beautifully colored, this stunning and nuanced watercolor is an exceptional original work by a distinguished British natural history painter.

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