THORNTON, Robert John (circa 1768-1837). - Peter HENDERSON
The American Cowslip
London: May 1st, 1801. Hand-coloured and colour-printed aquatint, stipple and line engraving by Warner. Trimmed to platemark. Slightly time-toned with mild moisture marks in bottom margin, not effecting image. Sheet size: 21 1/4 x 17 inches.
The most strikingly beautiful flower plates ever to be printed in England
"Although it was not introduced into Europe until the earlier part of the eighteenth century, the American Cowslip [Dodecatheon Meadia L.] had by Thornton's time become a firm favourite among gardeners in England... it continues to be grown and several fine garden varieties have been developed from the wild plant. Rarely more than sixteen inches high, its comparatively small size makes it a useful plant in the rock garden as well as in the border. The name of American Cowslip was given to it because the flowerhead arises, like an English cowslip, from a basal rosette of leaves, and the pendulous flowers, although individually unlike, are in each plant carried in an umbel..Its pointed flowers with upright petals have earned it the additional name of Shooting Star in its native country. In the picture it is shown growing on cliffs by the sea, a situation which affords a fine background against which to show off the virtues of the plant, its neat habit and graceful hanging flowers." (Ronald King, The Temple of Flora by Robert Thornton, 1981, p.100).
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).
Third of three states of this plate from the Temple of Flora . "In the first state, there is only one patch of blue sky over the nearer of the two ships, which together present an appearance of perspective. The foreground changes gradually from dark at the bottom to lighter under the rocks, which are more or less unbroken. In the second state...tufts of grass stand out sharply in front of the rocks at the back of the foreground, while bushes growing out of the rocks are enlarged...In the third state, the plate has been reworked almost all over...The foreground now shows alternate light and dark patches, and the crevices in the rocks show up more". (Handasyde Buchanan, Thornton's Temple of Flora, 1951, p.19).