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 [watermarked: 1794-1806].
Atlas folio (570 x 450 mm). 31 PLATES COLOR-PRINTED IN AQUATINT AND MEZZOTINT AND FINISHED BY HAND, preceded by 2 engraved additional titles, 5 engraved portraits of Thornton, Queen Charlotte, Sir Thomas Millington and 2 of Linnaeus, one in Lapland dress, and 16 other engraved leaves including the emblematic plate "The Universal Power of Love," BOTH PORTRAITS OF LINNAEUS IN TWO STATES, COLORED AND UNCOLORED, additional "Analysis of the Sexual System of Linnaeus" laid-in (a few plates with monor white surface discoloration, two plates with offsetting from text, four plates with tears along platemark reinforced with tissue). Modern brown morocco preserving original cover and spine panels laid down. Provenance: Massachusetts Horticultural Society (bookplate).
FIRST EDITION OF THIS MAGNIFICENT WORK, WITH PLATES IN EARLY STATES. The 28 flower plates are after paintings by Abraham Pether, Philip Reinagle, Sydenham Edwards, Peter Henderson and others. Although a physician by training, Thornton himself provided the painting for the "Roses," a particularly sumptuous plate. Ward, Earlom and Dunkarton executed the mezzotint engraving, while the aquatinting of the plates was done by Stadler and Sutherland. The "Group of [two] Auriculas" and "American Bog Plants" are included in the Massachusetts Horticultural Society copy, as well as the "Group of [four] Auriculas" and "Pitcher Plant." The plate of the "Superb Lily" is engraved by Ward [Dunthorne's "A" state] rather than Earlom. Two late substitutes, "The Queen Flower" and "The American Aloe", not found in early issues, are here excluded, as are "The Pontic Rhododendron" and "The Blue Egyptian Water Lily." The text collates as follows: "A British Trophy in Honor of Linnaeus" (verso blank); title (verso blank); dedication (1 leaf); section title "preliminary observations" (verso blank); 6 leaves (each with variant heading and blank verso); "On the sexes of plants" (20 leaves); section title "part second"; poem "Linnaeus explores Lapland" (1 leaf, blank on verso); "Origin of the Sexual System" (6 leaves); section title "part third" with poem by Mrs Barbauld on verso; "Picturesque Botanical Plates Illustrative of the Sexual System if Carolus von Linnaeus"; "The Temple of Flora" (76 leaves, including engraved preliminaries).
Although it caused his ruin, Thornton produced "... the most strikingly beautiful set of flower plates ever to be printed in England, [and] one of the loveliest books in the world" (see Alan Thomas's account in Great Books and Book Collectors, pp.142-44). However, its publication history was complex, leading Buchanan to state that "no two copies of this book are alike." Even the title was not used consistently. What is now universally known as The Temple of Flora is the final portion of a work which Thornton announced to the public in 1797 as a New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus. Dedicated to Queen Charlotte, George III's consort, the plates were very carefully directed by Thornton who was not just the publisher but the presiding genius of the work. Influenced by contemporary aesthetic theory, no less than the botanical discoveries of Linnaeus and their neoclassical versification by Erasmus Darwin, he selected the plants to be shown, arranged the symbolism and chose the backgrounds in a way that turned the science of botany into a drama of exotic form in visionary landscapes. There is no more magnificent English flower book. Dunthorne 301; Great Flower Books, p.77; Nissen BBI 1955; Stafleu & Cowan TL2 14.283.