THORNTON, Robert John (circa 1768-1837). - Peter HENDERSON
The Nodding Renealmia
London: 1801. Hand-coloured and colour-printed aquatint, engraving by Caldwell. First state of two. Sheet size: 21 1/2 x 16 1/2 inches.
The most strikingly beautiful set of flower plates ever to be printed in England.
"This graceful plant [Catimbium speciosum (Wendl.) Holttum], which Thornton says `rises by the banks of rivers to a height of near twenty feet' is a native of China and Japan and was introduced to the West about 1792 by Sir Joseph Banks. It flowers in May and when first seen was immediately proclaimed for the beauty of its pink sweetly scented flowers. Thornton was impressed with the way its inflorescence opened in stages, each of which had a charm of its own: he described it as follows: In the first stage the buds are enveloped within a leafy sheath, in the centre, supporting at the top a small leaf. The inside is a beautiful crimson. The flower then shoots out a real spatha consisting of two leaves of light green, elegantly running into crimson. These droop, when the buds all appear regularly disposed like tiles of a house, of a beautiful white, tipped with crimson. They then appear glossy, as if formed of a most perfect wax. From an absolute depending position, the flower-stalk gradually becomes nodding, the protecting leaf in the centre of the plant withers and from the bottom upwards the flowers take a contrary direction, the buds each turning back as they open, displaying a lovely assemblage of the most captivating flowers" (Ronald King, The Temple of Flora by Robert Thornton, 1981, p.72). Thornton's The 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 [were] 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).