THORNTON, Robert John (circa 1768-1837). - Peter REINAGLE & Abraham PETHER
The Night Blowing Cereus
London: May 20th., 1800. Hand-coloured and colour-printed mezzotint engraving by Dunkerton. Sheet size: 22 1/2 x 17 3/4 inches.
The most strikingly beautiful flower plates ever to be printed in England.
"The plant shown in this picture [Selenicereus grandiflorus (L.) Britton & Rose]... is also known as the Moon Cactus, from the moon-like appearance of the fully open flower. Thornton also says that... it was sometimes called the `Torch Thistle' as it `exhibits to the observer a figure equally grotesque as terrific, with flowers possessing actually the blazing appearance of a torch.' The plant is a native of Jamaica and Cuba. This picture is one of the most arresting in the collection... The plant itself is of interest, not only for its large and beautiful flowers, but as a representative of those which, growing in a hot and dry environment, open their flowers at night for pollination by night-flying insects, pollinators being scarce in such climates during the heat of the day. This has a curious effect where public botanic gardens are concerned, since these are shut at night to visitors, who thus never see the plant in full bloom." (Ronald King. The Temple of Flora by Robert Thornton. 1981, p.74). 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 state of plate A.