THORNTON, Robert John (circa 1768-1837). - Peter HENDERSON
The White Lily
London: 1800. Hand-coloured and colour-printed aquatint engraving by Stadler. Second state of four. Sheet size: 21 1/8 x 16 3/4 inches.
The most strikingly beautiful flower plates ever to be printed in England.
"The White Lily [with variegated leaves Lilium candidum L. var. aureomarginatum], now often called the Madonna Lily, is one of the oldest companions of mankind and, in the... purity of its appearance, one of the loveliest. Known and loved in ancient Greece and Crete, it was known and cherished also by many other nations of the ancient world, including even the... Assyrians, who carved it in their bas-reliefs. It was given its Latin name by the Roman poet Virgil and seems to have been taken by the Romans everywhere they went, since it is found apparently wild in nearly all the countries of their former empire, although modern science suggests that it is native... to Mediterranean countries and those of south-west Asia. Bartholomaeus Anglicus, one of the first English writers to mention plants, writing at the end of the thirteenth century, captured in a superb sentence the very essence of this plant, `the Lilye is an herbe with a white floure: and though the leves of the floure be white yet within shyneth the lykness of gold.' In the Christian religion, as its modern name implies, it has for long been associated with the Virgin Mary. The plant portrayed in this plate is a rare form with yellow-margined leaves... [The image] is noteworthy for its very dark background, chosen to set off the light colours of the flowers and leaves." (Ronald King. The Temple of Flora by Robert Thornton. 1981, p.86). 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).