THORNTON, Robert John (circa 1768-1837). - Peter HENDERSON
The China Limodoron
London: 1802. Hand-coloured and colour-printed in aquatint, engraving by Landseer. First state. Sheet size: 22 1/2 x 17 1/2 inches.
The most strikingly beautiful flower plates ever to be printed in England.
"This noble evergreen orchid [the China Limodoron Phaius Tankervillae (Banks) Blume, Phaius grandifolius], native of the lands from China to Australia, was introduced to England from China in 1778 by Dr Fothergill, an eminent and wealthy physician who had a garden at Upton in Essex with a 260-foot glasshouse adjoining the house.. It was doubtless in this glasshouse that the plant was first grown. Its many-flowered spikes, from two to four feet high, which are produced from February and March, are fine for exhibition and withstand cutting well. Individual flowers are from three to four inches across. Thornton's name for the plant.. is a corruption of Limodorum, the botanical name of the genus in which the plant was placed in his time. The plate...represents the plant very well. The landscape behind is unobtrusive and contains little to distract the viewer. The beauty of the plant is left to make its own impact. In Thornton's day this must have been tremendous, as few exotic orchids had as yet been flowered in Europe and it was to be another twenty years before their culture began to be understood." (Ronald King, The Temple of Flora by Robert Thornton, 1981, p.104). 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).