THORNTON, Robert John (circa 1768-1837). - Peter REINAGLE
The Oblique-Leaved Begonia
London: July 1st., 1800. Hand-coloured and colour-printed aquatint, stipple and line engraving by Caldwell. Sheet size: 21 3/4 x 19 3/4 inches. Fine condition.
The most strikingly beautiful flower plates ever to be printed in England.
"Begonias as we see them in glasshouse and garden today are a modern development unknown in Thornton's time, when a few species had been introduced to Europe. The particular species he chose for this picture, Begonia nitidia [Dryander], had not long been brought in from Jamaica by Sir Joseph Banks. Regarded as a fine plant then, there was as yet no hint of the important part it was to play one hundred years later in the breeding of the modern small-flowered bedding begonias, Begonis semperflorens. Historically, this picture is of interest as showing a basic species almost at the time it was originally introduced. It is itself an attractive plant with a smooth shiny stem and large glossy green leaves. The way its parts shine, reflecting what light there is, is such an outstanding characteristic of the plant that it provided part of its botanical name: the epithet nitidia means `shining'. That characteristic was superbly captured by the painter Philip Reinagle... and skilfully reproduced by the engraver Caldwell... It is one of Thornton's most attractive and beautiful plates." (Ronald King. The Temple of Flora by Robert Thornton. 1981, p.76). Thornton's 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). Single state (with minor variations) of this plate from the Temple of Flora. "A very fine plate... with the begonias actually all printed in colour in the early impressions... Minor variations in state only. The mountains which start in pure aquatint are later strengthened with oblique lines, while the horizon is sharper. Later still, the large white cloud at the top right became reduced in size from 1-1 1/2 inches to less than 1/2 inch.. [however, the cloud resumed it former size in the latest impressions.] " (Handasyde Buchanan. Thornton's Temple of Flora, 1951, p.17).