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Strictly limited to 600 copies, this is the first ever full-size facsimile of the greatest English florilegium
Robert Thornton was the visionary creator of the finest of all English flower books, The Temple of Flora. Despite being neither an artist nor a professional botanist, he was fascinated by the rapid development in botanical knowledge of his time and inspired by the success of flower books in France. Thornton was convinced that Britain should be leading Europe in both the arts and the sciences, and wrote that he planned to create a botanical book which would be a National Honour, ‘which in Point of Magnificence is intended to exceed all other Works of a similar Nature on the Continent’. In posterity’s eyes, he succeeded, although he bankrupted himself in the process. Today the plates from this near-legendary work are some of the loveliest and most popular of all flower illustrations.
Although much loved as prints and frequently reproduced in books on botanical art, there has never been a full facsimile of The Temple of Flora, presenting the plates as they were originally meant to be seen – together with Thornton’s idiosyncratic and charming text. From the delicate colouring of A Group of Tulips and elegant form of The Sacred Egyptian Bean to the drama of The Night-Blowing Cereus (on which the binding design of this edition was based) and The Dragon Arum, these plates are exceptional works of art, whose value, both monetary and cultural, has steadily increased with the passage of time.
(frame and mount not included)
This plate was issued on 1 May 1798. Philip Reinagle’s original painting was engraved by the renowned mezzotint engraver Richard Earlom. Thornton tells the reader that bulbs of ‘Louis XVI’ and ‘General Washington’ cost no less than 40 guineas and 10 guineas, respectively.
Issued on 11 September 1804. The painting by Peter Charles Henderson was engraved by Joseph Constantine Stadler using both aquatint and stipple techniques. The Egyptian associations of this species is Thornton’s excuse to recount Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and point out the iniquities of the French.
Each plate in The Temple of Flora is a marvel of composition and colouring, showcasing the romance and exotic beauty of the plants. Fine art reproductions of single engravings at full size range in price from £300 to £600, while complete sets fetch around £6,000, which means this superb facsimile edition and free gift of two fine prints represent truly exceptional value.
Each print measures, 22" x 17¾".
Delivery of limited editions may take longer than standard editions. Please contact us for more information.
The Temple of Flora was sold in parts for a guinea a time. Thornton’s subscription list was headed by Queen Charlotte, followed by the Prince of Wales, other members of the royal family and ‘nine foreign kings and potentates’. Despite such support, Thornton’s ambition outstripped his resources. Desperate last-ditch attempts to raise money by a private lottery failed, and Thornton was left penniless. He blamed the war with France for his failure, but in truth, less extravagant flower books could bring men with deeper pockets to ruin.
Thornton might have been comforted to know that the flattering verses composed by his friends would eventually prove true. Today he is remembered as the visionary creator of one of the world’s greatest ever works of floral art. As Alan Thomas wrote in Great Books and Book Collecting, ‘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’.
From childhood, Thornton had been drawn to botany and natural sciences, upsetting his grandmother by insisting on housing specimens in her drawing room. He became a doctor, but was thrilled by the new discoveries being made in plant sciences – especially the revolutionary notion that plants reproduced sexually. Particularly impressed by the classification system of Linnaeus, the great Swedish scientist, Thornton conceived the wildly ambitious plan of creating a book which would combine the best of the arts, both painting and poetry, with the latest botanic discoveries – all as a monument to Linnaeus.
After inheriting his family’s estate Thornton proceeded to invest his entire fortune in the plan. He commissioned artists – not traditional botanical draughtsmen, but landscape and portrait painters – who would show the plants as he wished them to be seen, in the foreground, dominating the plates with their size and magnificence. To increase the sense of wonder, he selected the most interesting and beautiful plants then being brought into Britain by explorers from the far reaches of the globe. He was well connected, and persuaded eminent scientists and poets to write verses and encomiums, including the great polymath Erasmus Darwin, Daniel Rutherford, Regius Professor of Botany at Edinburgh, and George Shaw of the British Museum. Recognising that his vision would be realised only if the craftsmanship was of the highest order, he lavished money on employing the finest engravers of the day.
In Thornton’s day there was no such hard division between the arts and the sciences as exists now. Famous men like Erasmus Darwin were equally known for their philosophy and inventions, even translating scientific works as long epic poetry, while botanical gardens owed as much to the classical aesthetic as to scientific enquiry. It is this context which explains Thornton’s eclectic text and makes it so engaging and evocative. He includes essays on ‘Hindoo mythology’, poems translated from Greek, Latin and Persian, tales from China and specially commissioned verses alongside serious botanical notes. His extravagant prose echoes the Gothic romances of the day, while the pastoral poetry reminds one that the book was produced during the heyday of Romanticism. As Sacheverell Sitwell commented, here is ‘an entire age condensed into a book’.
Dr Stephen Harris of the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Oxford is also curator of the Oxford University Herbaria and author of a recent book on another great florilegium, The Magnificent Flora Graeca. In his engaging Commentary he discusses the making of Thornton’s work and its place in both artistic and botanical history. His detailed comments on the individual plates, and Thornton’s extensive footnotes, provide a superb guide to the work.
Review by bcapstick on 8th Feb 2013
"This is an outstanding book. The illustrations are a tour de force, with a depth of colour and finish that I would not have thought possible before seeing it. The text is finely produced although th..." [read more]