ROBERT JOHN THORNTON (circa 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 [watermarked: 1794-1806]
Broadsheets (600 x 465mm). 33 PLATES COLOUR-PRINTED IN AQUATINT AND MEZZOTINT AND FINISHED BY HAND, preceded by 2 engraved additional titles, 3 engraved portraits (of Queen Charlotte, Thornton and Millington), two colour-printed portraits of Linnaeus, finished by hand One of him in Lapland dress), and 16 other engraved leaves including an emblematic plate 'The Universal Power of Love'. (Slight dampstaining to upper outer blank corner of first 27 leaves, 8 plates with appreciable oxidisation of pigmments, the Snowdrop plate slightly browned, the American Bog Plant plate spotted.) Modern green morocco gilt by Sangorski & Sutcliffe, the covers with a wide decorative border composed from fillets and broken fillets with a flower and foliage roll, the central panel decorated around the edge with groupings of various rose-spray tools, spine in seven compartments with raised bands, lettered in one, the others with repeat pattern of rose-spray tools, gilt turn-ins, two wrappers bound in at the rear, one mounted with letterpress Address leaf from Thornton, reccomending a binder and giving Directions for the binder. Provenance: Johannishus Bibliotek (bookplate, dated 1952).
A FINE COPY OF THE GREATEST ENGLISH BOTANICAL COLOUR-PLATE BOOK, BOUND FROM THE ORIGINAL PARTS, WITH MOST OF THE PLATES IN FIRST OR EARLY STATES. It includes both of the Group of Auriculas plates, and both the American Bog Plants and the Pitcher Plants plates. Of the possible plates it is without only the Queen Flower and the American Aloe, both of which were late substitutes, and would not expected in earlier issues of the work. The Superb Lily is in Dunthorne's 'B' state, engraved by Earlom.
The publication history of this great work are shrouded in confusion: the grandiose schemes of the author, his character and financial difficulties all ensured that the publication was a very stop-start sort of affair, with plates and text appearing irregularly and occasionally being withdrawn and replaced. All this has meant that a definative collation has not been possible, even though Thornton does give a full collation for the work on the very rare Address leaf bound in this copy. The present copy, for instance, includes three additional text leaves (as well as the two extra plates). The text therefore collates as follows: title (verso blank); dedication (1 leaf); section title (verso blank); text (26 leaves); section title (verso blank); text (7 leaves); section title (poem on verso); second title (verso blank); text (76 leaves).
Of the publishing history of this magnificent work Alan Thomas comments: 'More or less coeval with Redouté in France came the production of the greatest English colour-plate flower book, Thornton's Temple of Flora. . . [Thornton] inherited a competent fortune and trained as a doctor. He appears to have had considerable success in practice and was appointed both physician to the Marylebone Dispensary and lecturer in medical botany at Guy's and St. Thomas's hospitals. But quite early in his career he embarked on his somewhat megalomaniac great work. 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 . . . Numerous important artists were engaged. There were portraits by Sir William Beechey, John Opie, Sir Henry Raeburn and others; there were three emblematic frontispieces . . .; and, finally, twenty-eight paintings of flowers commissioned from Abraham Pether, known as 'Moonlight Pether', Philip Reinagle, . . . Sydenham Edwards and Peter Henderson. Thornton himself painted the most famous plate of all, 'The Roses' . . . The result was almost total failure and involved Thornton in desperate financial straits. His fortune was engulfed and his family reduced to penury. In an attempt to extricate himself he organized the Royal Botanic lottery, under the patronage of the Prince Regent, but this too was a failure . . . 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.' (A. Thomas: Great Books and Book Collectors p .142 - 144).
Dunthorne 301; Great Flower Books p. 77; Nissen BBI 1955; Stafleu & Cowan 14.283.