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Art in Scotland
Robert Thorburn

Born, March 1818; died, 1885.

This well-known artist was born and educated in Dumfries, where his father was engaged in trade, and his brother was a skilful carver in wood. He early developed a love for art, which was much encouraged by a lady of Dumfries, whose attention was first attracted by seeing him drawing on a stool in his father's shop. This lady afterwards materially helped him; and assisted by means provided by some of her townsmen, young Thorburn was at the age of fifteen sent to Edinburgh to draw at the Academy under Sir William Allan. After making rapid progress and obtaining academic distinction, he went to London about 1836, and attended the Royal Academy classes. By his own abilities, not less than the patronage of the Duke of Buccleuch, he soon took a leading position as a miniature-painter, and his works at the Royal Academy for many years divided the attention of the public with those of Sir William Ross. His first commission for the Queen was executed in 1846, after which he painted miniatures of the Prince Consort, the Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Princess Charlotte of Belgium, the Duke of Brabant, and a group of the Queen with the Princess Helena and Prince Alfred. He was particularly successful with his female sitters, further among whom were the Hon. Mrs Norton, the Marchioness of Waterford, Viscountess Canning, and the Duchess of Buccleuch. He frequently worked on a larger scale than is generally the case with miniaturists, and on the advent of photography gave up almost entirely this branch of art for oil-painting, in which manner he executed many full-length portraits with landscape and interior backgrounds, as well as chalk-portraits. He was a constant exhibitor at the Royal Academy, where latterly he exhibited numerous subject-pictures, often of a religious cast, from Scripture history and the 'Pilgrim's Progress.' These were generally of a quiet and pleasing kind, and seldom possessed the dignity and strength usually expected in historical work. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1848, and although resident in London, also retained a house at Lasswade, near Edinburgh. At the Paris Exhibition of 1855 he was awarded a first-class gold medal, but his work is unmentioned by M. Gautier in his critique of the pictures exhibited there. His death occurred at Tunbridge Wells in 1885, in his sixty-eighth year.

Lord Cockburn in his Memorials mentions that Thorburn, with David Roberts, R. Scott Lauder, Drs Andrew and Alexander Ure, and Beattie, got up a petition to the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, dated June 28, 1849, from London, to prevent the demolition of John Knox's house in Edinburgh.

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