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From the delicate colouring of Tulips and elegant form of the Sacred Egyptian Bean to the drama of The Night-Blowing Cereus and the Dragon Arum Lily, the plates from this legendary work are some of the loveliest and most popular of all flower illustrations. The flowers stand majestically in the foreground – dominating the composition. Yet the backgrounds are almost equally compelling as artistic achievements: sometimes sinister and gothic, sometimes serene and elegant.
Robert Thornton spared no expense on commissioning the very best artists and craftsmen of the day. Rather than employing traditional botanical draughtsmen, Thornton sought out landscape and portrait painters to depict the most interesting and exotic plants being brought to Britain by explorers during an age of discovery. The result was a work of breathtaking beauty and a showcase for the latest techniques: stipple engraving, mezzotint and aquatint to allow subtleties of tonal shading without cross-hatching, and even printed washes of colour. Such techniques required expertise and were extremely time-consuming and expensive to undertake, especially since Thornton often used all three on the same plate, with each one subsequently handcoloured. It is, as author Patrick M. Synge comments, ‘work of a kind which no money can command today and which no machine can really equal’.
Having purchased a rare copy of the original book at auction, The Folio Society was able to unbind and scan the original pages, providing a more accurate reproduction than photography. Even so, months of work by a dedicated expert were required in order to restore the subtlety of colour and fineness of line in the original engravings. Modigliani high-quality, felt-marked paper was chosen for its unique feel and finish, while the award-winning art printers Beacon Press were selected for their exceptional attention to detail. The end results are spectacular, making these plates the most faithful reproductions available.
Although the flowers are often reproduced in books on botanical art, there is no substitute for viewing the plates at full size, printed on gorgeous paper to the highest possible standards. Drawn from The Folio Society’s full-size limited edition facsimile, all 29 flower plates are now available in a portfolio of prints, allowing each to be taken out, framed and displayed, or leafed through as a collection. However they are viewed, these are superb pictures that will give great pleasure to any lover of botanical art.
Robert Thornton was fascinated by developments in botany and inspired by the success of flower books in France. He decided to invest his entire fortune in creating the finest flower book the world had ever seen. The Temple of Flora was sold in parts for a guinea a time, with a subscription list headed by Queen Charlotte and the Prince of Wales. Despite such support, Thornton’s ambition outstripped his resources and he was left penniless. He blamed the war with France, but in truth, less extravagant flower-books had brought men with deeper pockets to ruin. Over 200 years on, Robert Thornton would be comforted to learn that he has given us some of the world’s most sought-after flower paintings.