THORNTON, Robert John (ca 1768-1837). Picturesque Botanical Plates of the New Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnaeus. [London: for the publisher, ca 1807].
Broadsheets (22 2/8 x 17 4/8 inches). Engraved title-page "The Temple of Flora, or Garden of Nature...", dedication and contents leaves. 4 FINE stipple-engraved colour printed plates finished by hand including a portrait of Linnaeus, "Flora Dispensing her Favours on Earth", "Aesculapius, Flora, Ceres and Cupid ...", and "Cupid Inspiring the Plants with Love", and 28 EXCEPTIONALLY FINE mezzotint and/or aquatint engraved plates printed in colors and/or colored by hand, comprising:
"The Snowdrop" [Dunthorne state I];
"The Persian Cyclamen" [I];
"Hyacinths" [I]; "Roses" [I];
"A Group of Carnations" [II];
"A Group of Auriculas" [two only, I];
"A Group of Auriculas" [four, I];
"Tulips" [EARLY PROOF WITH NO CAPTION];
"The Aloe" [I];
"The Nodding Renealmia" [I];
"The Night Blowing Cereus" [BI];
"The Oblique-Leaved Begonia" [I];
"Large Flowering Sensitive Plant" [I];
"The Blue Passion Flower" [I];
"The Winged Passion Flower" [I];
"The Quadrangular Passion Flower" [I];
"The White Lily" [I];
'The Superb Lily" [B, II];
"The Dragon Arum" [I];
"The Maggot-Bearing Stapelia" [I];
"The Pontic Rhododendron";
"The American Cowslip" [II];
"The Narrow Leaved Kalmia";
"The China Limodoron";
"The Indian Reed" [I];
"The Sacred Egyptian Bean";
and the "The Blue Egyptian Water Lily" (some minor marginal spotting). Contemporary half tan calf, marbled paper boards, gilt (rebacked to style).
Provenance: With a near contemporary gift inscription to "Louisa Cath. B. Church presented to her by her affectionate father J.M.G. Church 21st March 1825... and from the above to Caroline Church June 15th 1872"; with the late 19th-century bookplate of Edmund Giles Loder, 2nd Bart., (1849-1920).
FINE, EARLY IMPRESSIONS OF THORNTON'S CELEBRATED FLOWER PLATES FROM HIS "TEMPLE OF FLORA": 'THE MOST STRIKINGLY BEAUTIFUL SET OF FLOWER PLATES EVER TO BE PRINTED IN ENGLAND' (Alan Thomas, Great Books and Book Collectors, page 144).
Including an exceptionally rare and early proof plate of "The Tulips", and two of the rarest plates: 'A Group of [Four] Auriculas' and 'Pitcher Plant'; the majority of the plates are in their earliest or only issue. Only one of the justly celebrated plates of flowers ("The Roses") was by Thornton, the others are after paintings by Abraham Pether, Philip Reinagle, Sydenham Edwards, Peter Henderson and others, although he selected the subjects of the plates, their symbolism and dramatic landscapes.
A doctor by training, a substantial inheritance allowed Thornton to achieve his dream of "an immense work in many volumes which in scope, illustration, paper and typography would surpass anything in any other European country" (Grigson). However the enterprise brought about his financial ruin and in spite of several lotteries designed to raise funds Thornton was forced to return to medical practice in order to support himself.
"At the heart of the 'New Illustration' was Thornton's scheme to produce a specifically British botanical publication of a magnificence to surpass all previous examples. Teams of master engravers and colourists, including Francesco Bartolozzi, Richard Earlom, and John Landseer, used the full range of modern printing techniques to produce coloured illustrations after paintings by such prominent artists as Sir William Beechey, James Opie, Henry Raeburn, John Russell, Abraham Pether, and his two favoured illustrators, Peter Henderson and Philip Reinagle. The illustrations were not restricted to the 'choicest flowers' in the world, but included portraits of eminent botanists-including the famous portrait of Linnaeus in Lapp (Sami) dress-elaborate allegories, such as 'Cupid Inspiring the Plants to Love', and a bust of Linnaeus being honoured by Aesculapius, Flora, Ceres, and Cupid. The text, which includes a translation of Linnaeus's 'Prize dissertation' on the sexuality of plants (1759), is similarly not bound to accounts and texts of scientific botany, but deals with a wide range of religious, political, spiritual, social, and emotional issues, not only in prose but also through extensive use of poems by modern and ancient authors. It is easy to regard much of this material as irrelevant to the publication's botanical aims, but this is to miss the universal human and religious purposes of botanical learning in Thornton's system of thought" (Martin Kemp for DNB).
The composition of Thornton's work varies greatly, but in its most complete form comprises three sections, of which the last, is this 'The Temple of Flora', containing the magnificent botanical plates for which the work is celebrated. However, Thornton issued his works over a period of years in various permutations, frequently incorporating extant engravings into new works, or issuing components as discrete works, such as here. For New Illustration of the Sexual System, cf.: Cleveland Collections 722; Dunthorne 301; Great Flower Books p.143; Nissen BBI 1955; Stafleu and Cowan 14283. Catalogued by Kate Hunter.