THORNTON, Robert John (circa 1768-1837). - Peter HENDERSON
The Pontic Rhododendron
London: 1801. Hand-coloured and colour-printed in aquatint, stipple and line engraving by Caldwell. Sheet size: 22 1/2 x 17 3/4 inches.
The most strikingly beautiful flower plates ever to be printed in England.
"The Pontic Rhododendron [Rhododendron ponticum L.], native of south-west Asia and Spain first appears in history in the pages of Xenophon, the Greek historian, who tells the story of a time when his army of `Immortals'... on their long retreat through Persia, made themselves very ill with honey culled by bees from the flower of this plant... [During the 19th century the Pontic Rhododendron came to used as a stock for the showier... Rhododendrons of south-east Asia]... its virtues are, in fact, considerable. The soft and delicate colouring of its mauve flowers, translucent in the sunshine amid its glossy green leaves, are well worth a second look and were it rare and difficult to grow, it would be a plant for connoisseurs to prize." (Ronald King. The Temple of Flora by Robert Thornton. 1981, p.98). 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.