Robert Thorburn (1818–85)
Thorburn’s output caught the eye of no less a figure than Queen Victoria herself...
Details of hairstyle and costume cause us to date this miniature to the mid-1840s. This was the period of miniaturist Robert Thorburn’s greatest success. The present miniature leaves us in little doubt as to why this might be the case. The sitter is a young woman – of marriageable age – and her portrait may well have been intended for a potential suitor. Should this have been the case, Thorburn performed his commission admirably. Youthful in expression, with large, glistening eyes, a swan-like neck and her hair dressed in glossy barley curls – then the height of fashion – the sitter is shown by Thorburn to conform to the characteristics of a great Victorian beauty.
No mere jobbing painter, Thorburn was an artist of considerable ambition. He sought to push the capabilities of the portrait miniature format. He opted for bold choices in his supports, preferring a larger format that often required two sheets of ivory to be joined together. Thorburn preferred ivory taken from the circumference of the tusk; this he would have crushed beneath a tremendous pressure so that it could reach the desired thinness and flatness. In his colouring, Thorburn aimed to achieve the richness and depth of oils, often defying the inherently aqueous watercolour medium often to dazzling effect.
Born in faraway Dumfries to the son of a tradesman, there was little in Robert Thorburn’s familial situation that suggested that he was to become a successful London-based portrait miniaturist. That this should have eventually been the case is a testament both to the skill and to the tenacity of the artist. Thorburn acquired his love of art whilst studying at the unremarkable Dumfries High School. Eager to learn and demonstrating a remarkable early facility as a draughtsman, Thorburn was sent aged fifteen to Edinburgh, where he studied drawing under Sir William Allan at the academy of the Royal Institute of Scotland. When there, he continued to impress his superiors with the remarkable speed with which his talent developed and over the course of his studies was awarded two first prizes in the Institute’s competitions. By 1835 – aged only seventeen – Thorburn was exhibiting at the Royal Academy of Scotland, where he was to continue to show his works until 1856. Thorburn quickly caught the attention of leading patrons, including most notably the Duke of Buccleuch, who was keen to lavish his attention on so precocious a son of Dumfries.
By this point, however, Thorburn had begun to feel that the opportunities available in Scotland were not equal to his talents. Schools. Thorburn, clearly possessed of considerable commercial alacrity, was never to regret this decision. In 1836, the young artist moved to London, where he enrolled at the Royal Academy. The following year, he exhibited the first of some over 265 works that he was to show there over the course of a career that lasted some forty-seven years. With time, Thorburn’s output caught the eye of no less a figure than Queen Victoria herself. In 1844 she wrote of Thorburn that that ‘he is a young Scotchman of great talent, […] & has painted some splendid miniatures, with such depth of colouring & such power, as I have never before seen in a miniature’. Clearly impressed, Victoria soon commissioned to produce a plethora of miniatures of her family, including herself and Prince Albert. Victoria was quite enamoured of the young Thorburn’s productions. She wrote of his miniature of Prince Albert in armour [RCIN 421665] ‘I cannot say how beautiful it is, nor how it exactly portrays the dear original’; indeed, it was said to be her favourite likeness of her husband. When Albert gifted the queen her portrait by Thorburn she remarked that it was ‘so like & so beautiful’.
Over the course of the decade, Thorburn’s stock continued to rise. International recognition came in 1855, when he was awarded the gold medal at the Paris Exposition Universelle. However, this was to be the peak of Thorburn’s career. Despite his continuing royal favour, a dispute over payments caused Thorburn to decline royal commissions after 1853. In the decades that followed, the steady rise in popularity of the relatively inexpensive techniques of early photography caused miniaturists to be squeezed out of business. Ever resourceful, Thorburn turned to crayon drawings and subject picture of religious themes. But, despite maintaining modest success, when Thorburn’s life came to an end in 1885 he died a man who had outlived the successes of his youth.
 According to Queen Victoria, Thorburn spent two winters in Italy during this period. Although no biography of Thorburn’s life corroborates this, Thorburn’s copy after Raphael’s Madonna della Sedia – the original of which is in Florence – in the Royal Collection [RCIN 450007] could lend credence to this statement.