THORNTON, Robert John (circa 1768-1837). - Philip REINAGLE
The American Aloe
London: May 1st., 1807. Hand-coloured and colour-printed aquatint and line engraving by Medland. Sheet size: 21 1/8 x 16 11/16 inches.
The most strikingly beautiful flower plates ever to be printed in England.
The present plate was issued as a substitute for an earlier plate titled The Aloe by Thornton "..as the plant shown is not an aloe but an agave [Agave Americana L.]. Aloes are natives of the Old World, their native home being Africa: agaves, though similar in appearance, are inhabitants of the New World. Neither is found wild in the other's territory. Thornton realized his mistake, or had it pointed out to him, [and the present plate was published]. Agaves are, however, familiar under another name as they are the well-known `Century Plants' which are supposed to live a hundred years before flowering, the whole plant dying when the flower-spike decays. In fact, they have been known to flower as early as seven years of age and seldom take longer than twenty-five years. When they flower in glasshouses in the colder countries they present a problem as the flower-spike may rise to thirty feet or more, making it necessary to take out a pane of the roof glass to let the inflorescence rise into the open air. Agave Americana.. is often used for making hedges in warmer climates and a variegated form is also much grown as a specimen plant in such countries." (Ronald King,The Temple of Flora by Robert Thornton, 1981, p.70). 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). First and only state of this plate from the Temple of Flora.