This dramatic folio botanical engraving is from Dr. Robert John Thorntons work A New Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnaeus by … Thornton [The Genera of Exotic and Indigenous Plants that are to be met with in Great Britain; arranged according to the reformed system, by … Thornton]…The Temple of Flora. The work was published in London and the plates are dated between 1799 and 1801 with the plates and text watermarked between 1794 and 1801. This is a smaller folio offshoot of the larger folio work of the same name.
With this work, an offshoot of his larger masterpiece of the same title, Thornton attempted to explain Linnaean botany, as well as expound upon his own botanical theories. The work celebrates great contemporary and historical botanists and their supporters and also includes plates of many cross-sections of plant stems. The logic of the work is elusive, but what is undeniable is that, like its larger cousin, the present work includes some very charming plates. The chaotic publication of Thornton’s masterpiece, the seemingly haphazard order in which plates, text, tables were published, and the work’s final ignominious fate as prizes in a lottery draw have all meant that there is no definitive bibliographical description for either the large-scale work or the present somewhat smaller offshoot.
Thorntons engravings featured an uncommon composition in which the subject was seen oversized in relation to the background giving the plates a theatrical presence. Temple of Flora is often considered the greatest achievement in British botanical art. Thornton employed some of the foremost artists to create the plates included Peter Charles Henderson, Philip Reinagle, Abraham Pether, and Sydenham Edwards. Richard Earlom, James Caldwall, Thomas Sutherland, and Joseph Constantine Stadler were the engravers for Temple of Flora.
Thornton’s The Temple of Flora is the greatest English colour-plate flower book. “…[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…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…twenty-eight paintings of flowers commissioned from Abraham Pether, known as `Moonlight Pether,’ Philip Reinagle, …Sydenham Edwards, and Peter Henderson…The result…involved Thornton in desperate financial straits…In an attempt to extricate himself he organized the Royal Botanic Lottery, under the patronage of the Prince Regent…It is easy to raise one’s eyebrows at Thornton’s unworldly and injudicious approach to publishing…But he produced…one of the loveliest books in the world.” (Alan Thomas, Great Books and Book Collecting, pp.142-144)
Provenance: Chetham Library, Manchester, England