THORNTON, Robert John (circa 1768-1837). - Philip REINAGLE
The Superb Lily
London: 1794. Hand-coloured and colour-printed mezzotint engraving by Earlom. Sheet size: 22 1/2 x 17 3/4 inches.
The most strikingly beautiful flower plates ever to be printed in England.
The most strikingly beautiful flower plates ever to be printed in England. "Truly a magnificent sight in full flower, this plant is rightly named the Superb Lily [Lilium superbum L.]. A native of eastern North America, it stands robustly upright on its stout purple-tinged stem, often reaching six feet in height, and unfolds in July and August thickly spotted orange-red flowers, each of which may be four inches long, in numbers which may be as few as six, but have been known to reach as many as forty, although somewhere between twelve and twenty-five is more usual...The picture was painted by Philip Reinagle. Thornton appears to have been confident that it would sell well, since he had two plates of it engraved, one by Ward and the other by Earlom, both executed in mezzotint. They differ little from one another. Again, as in the plate of the White Lily, the inflorescence is shown against a dark background, but less dark than in the case of the White Lily because the striking colour of the flowers stands out boldly in its own right. The picture does full justice to this noble plant and the Superb Lily is one of the most popular of Thornton's plates" (Ronald King, The Temple of Flora by Robert Thornton, 1981, p.88). 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 [were] 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). First state of three.