It was perhaps from his father that Archibald Thorburn acquired the ability to create his minutely detailed paintings and he sketched from a very early age. He painted birds, animals and flowers but he specialised in the study of game birds, as he had a tremendous knowledge of ornithology.
Thorburn received little formal artistic training but his career as a painter of birds began in 1883, when he completed 144 plates for WF Swayslands Familiar Wild Birds. However, his reputation was firmly established by his contribution to Lord Lilfords magisterial survey Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Isles, which was published between 1885 and 1898.
Thorburns work created such an impact because he was one of the first British wildlife artists to paint and sketch in the open and from life, rather than in a studio and from stuffed samples. Although he moved to London in 1885, he continued to make sketching tours of Britain throughout his life.
He first exhibited at the Royal Academy at the age of 20, and was a regular figure there throughout the 1880s and 1890s. At the end of the 1890s he became disillusioned with the Academy and exhibited instead at A Baird Carter, in Jermyn Street. Thorburn was also sufficiently highly-regarded by his contemporaries to have been asked to paint Queen Victoria on three separate occasions.
Thorburn wrote many of his own books on birdlife and, as a keen conservationist, was elected Vice President of the RSPB in recognition of his services on behalf of bird preservation.
Generally preferring to work in watercolour, Thorburns skill, artistic talent and scientific observation ensured that he was recognised as one of the leading artists of his time. He died in 1935.