THORNTON, Robert John (circa 1768-1837). - Peter REINAGLE
London: May 1, 1798. Hand-coloured and colour-printed mezzotint engraving by Robert Earlom. Sheet size: 22 1/8 x 17 1/2 inches.
Widely considered the most beautiful English botanical print.
"Cultivated first in Turkey and adjacent countries, the tulip was brought to the West in the sixteenth century and was by some at first thought to be an edible bulb. Its decorative qualities and the ease with which new varieties could be bred soon brought it into such popularity that it gave rise in the seventeenth century to a craze in Holland [and elsewhere], afterwards named 'tulipomania,' in which fantastic prices were paid for individual bulbs. Thornton gives some examples of the comparatively high prices which reigned in his day, saying that 'even in England, at this time, the "Louis,"' which is the top flower in this picture, 'sells for forty guineas and the "Washington" for ten!' In the group displayed the top flower, as mentioned, is a variety named 'Louis XVI.' That on the left at the top is 'La Triomphe Royale,' on the right at the top is 'Duchess of Devonshire,' while below are, from left to right, 'Gloria Mundi,' 'La Majestieuse,' and 'Earl Spenncer.' The group was engraved by Earlom in mezzotint. It is a magnificent example of the brilliance of his work" (Ronald King,The Temple of Flora by Robert Thornton, 1981, p.66). 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). This copy the preferred second of two states of this plate. "In the second state the fields are reworked and show up clearly; bushes are added. The windmill stands out clearly ... The sky above is reworked ... I have never seen one that was not attractive" (Handasyde Buchanan, Thornton's The Temple of Flora, 1951, p.16).