THORNTON, Robert John (circa 1768-1837). - Peter HENDERSON
The Dragon Arum
London: Dec.1st., 1801. Hand-coloured and colour-printed mezzotint engraving by Ward. Sheet size: 22 1/2 x 17 3/4 inches.
The most strikingly beautiful flower plates ever to be printed in England.
The Dragon arum [Dracunculus vulgaris Schott, Arum Dracunculus] was presented by Thornton as an ideal example of the Gothic in the plant world, and therefore a highly fashionable and appropriate plant for a society that had shivered with horror at Walpole's `Castle of Otranto', Lewis's `The Monk' and a host of other similar novels. "Although it is in reality an innocuous plant which loves a patch of sandy loam on the sunny side of a south-facing wall, and will do you no harm unless you eat the berries, our ancestors regarded the Dragon Arum with horror. This aversion arose, no doubt, partly because of the poisonous nature of the berries, [and] partly because of its sinister appearance…Peter Henderson does his best to convey the feeling in this picture, in which black and threatening clouds brood over the hills and mountains while the dark and noisome plant thrusts its unwholesome menace up from below." (Ronald King. The Temple of Flora by Robert Thornton. 1981, p.90). 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 three.