Sharing gallery space alongside Archibald Thorburn is an enormous honour, contemporary bird artist Jim Starr tells Janet Menzies
In an unprecedented departure from the previous generation, Archibald Thorburn neglected scientific accuracy in favour of breathing life into his paintings’ subjects. Today there are more prints of Thorburn paintings in circulation than any other artist in the genre. Jim Starr tell Janet Menzies that sharing gallery space with the iconic sporting artist is an honour.
Few of us have actually seen a polar bear, a condor or even a golden eagle for that matter. But thanks to the efforts of Sir David Attenborough and the BBC Natural History Unit, we feel as if we have. Imagine a time when there weren’t even photographs to feed our curiosity about a world of unseen wildlife. Archibald Thorburn (1860-1935) was the first wildlife artist to have his work reproduced photographically and, today, there are more prints of Thorburn paintings in circulation than those of any other painter in the genre. Even quite keen wildlife fans are more likely to have seen a Thorburn black grouse than a real black grouse.
This was certainly the case when contemporary bird artist Jim Starr – whose work has just been exhibited alongside Thorburn at the Rountree Tryon Galleries at Petworth – was a boy. “Thorburn’s Birds, by James Fisher, was the first bird book given me by Mum and Dad when I was eight or nine years old, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing on the page,” Starr remembers. “It has been on my shelf for 30 years and I keep going back to it. It is difficult to separate the nostalgia from Thorburn’s art. It takes me back to being a young child looking at a painting of a golden eagle and this is my first experience of it, through Thorburn. Thorburn’s bird paintings have left an indelible mark on me. As a child they were my experience of birds because I hadn’t seen them in the wild.”
Thorburn’s work was not only the first to be so accessibly reproduced but it was a departure from the previous generation of bird paintings by John Gould, Edward Lear and John James Audubon.
Contemporary bird artist Rodger McPhail, considered by many to be the present-day successor to Thorburn, explains the new elements Thorburn brought to the genre: “None could render the softness of a bird’s plumage or breathe life into his subjects as he did. His mastery of watercolour and body colour technique was stunning. I have admired Thorburn’s work since I was a small boy. In my personal view, Thorburn’s most pleasing works are his field sketches. Not just birds but small mammals, flowers, fungi and insects. These sketches are beautifully executed with great accuracy and economy of brushwork.”
The previous generation of ornithological artists had been particularly concerned to depict a bird with near-scientific precision, and this was only appropriate. Gould, for example, was working alongside Charles Darwin – especially in depicting the species variation of finches that played a vital role in Darwin’s evolution theories. Thorburn, however, took a more narrative approach to his work, showing habitat, weather and the birds’ interaction with each other. Looking at his covey of ptarmigan huddled together on a snowy scree slope, you can almost hear the hushed tones of an Attenborough voiceover. It is a fuller experience than simply admiring the brilliant plumage of one of Audubon’s colourful birds.
A SCOTTISH UPBRINGING
Thorburn’s ability to empathise with birds in their natural surroundings probably comes from his upbringing in Scotland. He was born in Dumfries and his father, Robert Thorburn, was miniaturist to Queen Victoria.
He was sent down to England to study at the newly founded St John’s Wood School of Art in London but left as soon as he could.
Thorburn’s breakthrough came in 1887 when he was commissioned to illustrate Lord Lilford’s Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Isles. His nearly 300 watercolours for the book were met with general delight and from there he went on to illustrate his own and many other wildlife and natural history books. The first of his famous RSPB Christmas cards was produced in 1899 and became an annual tradition throughout his life.
Though so widely recognised, not every Christmas card painting could be a masterpiece, given how many he painted, and McPhail points out: “Though beautifully painted, the endless pictures of partridges, pheasants, woodcock and grouse tend to be rather repetitive. Many of these potboilers are rather mannered and the proportions of the birds questionable. Nor was he at his best when painting flying birds but he did not have the advantage of high-speed photography that is such an aid to contemporary wildlife painters.”
“I think he is arguably one of the best bird painters there is and I know because I have tried copying some of his illustrations,” says Starr. “He has a red grouse on the same page as black grouse and pheasants, and I tried copying these plates line by line and I don’t think there is anyone who can match him for feather details and habitat in the background. His use of white paint is just amazing, because he was working in watercolour with highlights of white. I have spent hours just looking at the backgrounds and at the pheasants. They are iconic images. It is just such an incredible honour to realise my work is hanging alongside his.”
Works illustrated by Thorburn include Thorburn’s Birds; Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Isles; British Birds; The Birds of the British Isles and Their Eggs; The Complete Illustrated Thorburn’s Birds. Paintings are often exhibited at the Rountree Tryon Galleries, www.rountreetryon.com