THORNTON, Robert John (1768-1837). New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus von Linnaeus ... the Temple of Flora, or Garden of Nature. London: T. Bensley for the publisher, [1799]-1807 - [1810].

$ 125,000.00

3 parts in 2 volumes. Broadsheets (24 x 19 inches). Volume one with 127 fine uncoloured engraved plates, copperplate, portraits and diagrams, including Linnaeus in his Lapland dress (some occasionally heavy spotting); volume II, "The Temple of Flora", with 6 engraved title-pages or dedications, an engraved portrait of the Queen, engraved contents leaf, and 31 FINE coloured plates, comprising 3 allegorical hand-coloured aquatint plates ("Aesculapius, Flora, Ceres and Cupid honouring the Bust of Linnaeus", "Cupid Inspiring Plants with Love", "Flora dispensing Her Favours on the Earth"), and 28 fine mezzotint and/or aquatint engraved plates printed in colors and/or colored by hand, comprising:

"The Snowdrop" [Dunthorne state III];

"The Persian Cyclamen" [III];

"Hyacinths" [II];

"Roses" [II];

"A Group of Carnations" [III];

"A Group of Auriculas" [two only, II];

"Tulips" [II];

"The Queen Flower";

"The Aloe" [II];

"The Nodding Renealmia" [II];

"The Night Blowing Cereus" [AII];

"The Oblique-Leaved Begonia" [III];

"Large Flowering Sensitive Plant" [II];

"The Blue Passion Flower" [III];

"The Winged Passion Flower" [I];

"The Quadrangular Passion Flower" [II];

"The White Lily" [I];

'The Superb Lily" [B, III];

"The Dragon Arum" [III];

"The Maggot-Bearing Stapelia" [II];

"American Bog Plants" [II];

"The Pontic Rhododendron";

"The American Cowslip" [II];

"The Narrow Leaved Kalmia";

"The China Limodoron";

"The Indian Reed" [II];

"The Sacred Egyptian Bean";

and the "The Blue Egyptian Water Lily".

Contemporary half black morocco, marbled paper boards (spine repaired, worn).


Thornton (1768-1837) was destined for a career in the church, but while at Trinity College, Cambridge he found inspiration in the botanical lectures of Thomas Martyn and switched to studying medicine. He went on to lecture in medical botany at Guy's Hospital. Conceived on a grandiose scale, Thornton's work was to comprise three parts: a dissertation on the sexual reproductive cycle of plates; an explanation of Linnaeus's plant system, lavishly illustrated with botanical plates and portraits of botanists; and "The Temple of Flora" which was to have no less than seventy large plates of exotic plant species arranged according to the classification system of Linnaeus. Each species was to appear in its native environment.

The production of the plates for "The Temple of Flora" involved a variety of techniques - aquatint, mezzotint, stipple engraving and stippling with line engraving or etching which required the participation of a large number of artists. Among those commissioned by Thornton were Philip Reinagle - who executed most of the preparatory drawings - Abraham Pether (known for his moody, quasi-Gothic landscapes), Sydenham Edwards, and Peter Henderson, and the engravers Richard Earlom, James Caldwall, and Thomas Burke. Only the plate of the Rose was drawn by Thornton and executed by Earlom.

In spite of using a host of artists and engravers, Thornton managed to "maintain a remarkable homogeneity of style throughout" (An Oak Spring Flora), but production was a protracted stop-and-go affair, causing the text and plates to appear irregularly, and to bring Thornton ultimately to the brink of personal bankruptcy. Because some plates were withdrawn or reworked in the course of publication, it is not possible to establish a definitive collation of the work. For his contribution to English botanical illustration, Thornton has been compared to Redouté by Alan Thomas: "more or less coeval with Redouté in France came the production of the greatest English colour-plate flower book... What Redouté produced under the patronage of L'Héritier, Marie Antoinette, the Empress Josephine, Charles X and the Duchesse de Berry, Thornton set out to do alone. The result was almost total failure ? His fortune was engulfed and his family reduced to penury... It is easy to raise one's eyebrows at Thornton's unworldly and injudicious approach to publishing... but he produced... the most strikingly beautiful set of flower plates ever to be printed in England [and] one of the loveliest books in the world (Great Books and Book Collectors pp. 142). Great Flower Books, p.77; Nissen BBI 1955; Grigson and Buchanan, Thornton's Temple of Flora (London, 1951). Catalogued by Kate Hunter