[COLOR PLATE] THORNTON, ROBERT. New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus von Linnaeus Comprehending ... the Temple of Flora, or Garden of Nature.
London: Printed for the publisher, by T. Bensley, -1807. First edition. Early 20th century three-quarters red morocco, top edge gilt. 23 1/4 x 18 1/2 inches (59 x 47.5 cm); collates as follows. Part I: engraved half-title "A British Trophy..."; engraved portrait of Thornton by F. Bartolozzi after Russell; engraved additional title; mezzotint portrait of Linnaeus in Lapland dress by Dunkarton after Kingsbury (colored state); engraved portrait of Linnaeus by H. Meyer after Hollman and Bartolozzi (in both colored and uncolored states); engraved portrait of Queen Charlotte by Bartolozzi after W. Beechey; engraved dedication; 3 engraved tables; engraved part-title "The Prize Dissertation"; engraved plates of "The Universal Power of Love," portrait of Sir Thomas Millington, and "Farina of Flowers," with letterpress title and 28 ff. text (including dedication and part-title) with 1806 watermarks. Part 2: engraved part-title; mezzotint portrait of Linnaeus in Lapland dress by Dunkarton after Kingsbury (uncolored state); 2 engraved tables, with 8 ff. (including half-title) with 1806 watermarks. Part III: engraved title on 2 sheets; engraved table of contents; engraved dedication on 2 sheets; engraved part-title; 3 plates: "Flora Dispensing her Favours on Earth" (aquatint and stipple engraved, hand-colored), and "Aesculapius, Flora, Ceres and Cupid..." and "Cupid Inspiring the Plants with Love" (color printed stipple-engravings finished by hand); 30 mixed-method engraved plates (mezzotint, aquatint, with some stipple) printed in colors and finished by hand (N.B. the plate list calls for 28 plates; this copy has two additional plates, the group of four auriculas and the pitcher plant), with 78 ff. including part-title and title, the text bearing 1804 watermarks. Most of the plates appear in first or early states by Dunthorne's criteria. A list of the plates is available upon request. Spine no longer present, front board detached, rear board just holding on the hinge. A large and unusually complete copy with all of the five frontispieces in colored state and with both auricula plates present, possibly bound from the parts (which appeared from 1799 on), with stab-stitch marks at the extreme fore-margin of many plates. Scattered light foxing, mostly to text, a few plates with some toning but all protected with guard-sheets. Sporadic slight chipping to the fore-edge, a few small closed tears to margins of text, several minor open tears (short and marginal), noted, one to the extreme lower edge of a plate.
Robert Thornton, who studied medicine at Cambridge and lectured on medical botany at Guy's Hospital in London, possessed a considerable fortune through the deaths of his father, mother and elder brother. It was his ambition, in which he was supremely successful, to produce a British florilegium whose qualities would outstrip any previous work, although the effort proved disastrous to his finances, as he spared no expense in the production. He had originally planned that the work should contain seventy color plates, but he curtailed the production after some thirty plates had been produced, a circumstance that he describes in his Apology to My Subscribers at the end of the work, in which he indicates that the Napoleonic Wars had harmed the endeavor. In 1812, he attempted to recoup some of his expenses by conducting a lottery, offering as first prize the original paintings for the plates, but this was a financial failure, and he died in diminished circumstances in 1837, leaving his family near destitution.
Despite Thornton's misadventures, the work ranks high in the pantheon of color plate books, and is especially satisfying when (as Dunthorne notes) the plates are in early states, as many in this copy are. These, with their complex backgrounds featuring landscapes and architecture, are quite unlike anything that came before, and are imbued with a thoroughly Romantic aesthetic. Compositionally, they are striking and botanically, they are accurate. They were rendered by artists including Sir William Beechey, James Opie, Henry Raeburn, John Russell, Abraham Pether, Peter Henderson, Philip Reinagle and in one case (Roses) Thornton himself. The engraving and coloring is masterly: Bartolozzi, Earlom, and John Landseer used a broad range of printing techniques to virtuosic effect. Dunthorne 301; Great Flower Books, p. 143; Nissen BBI 1955; Stafleu & Cowan 14283.
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