THORNTON, Robert John.

New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus comprehending ... the temple of flora, or garden of nature.


New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus comprehending … the temple of flora, or garden of nature.

London, For The Publisher, [1799]-1807.

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The first flower prints with landscape backgrounds, depicting the natural habitat of the plant. The life-size flowers stand out dramatically and the whole effect is startlingly modern. Thornton’s announced intention was to make this work the most magnificent tribute ever paid to the famous Swedish botanist by illustrating his Sexual System with the finest possible prints. It was a work on which no expense was spared.

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 colour 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 endeavour. 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 colour plate books, and is especially pleasing when the plates are in early states, as many in this copy are. With their complex backgrounds featuring landscapes and architecture, the illustrations 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 colouring is masterly: Bartolozzi, Earlom, and John Landseer used a broad range of printing techniques to virtuoso effect.


First edition, Large folio (59 x 47.5 cm). 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 (coloured state); engraved portrait of Linnaeus by H. Meyer after Hollman and Bartolozzi (in both coloured and uncoloured 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 (uncoloured 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-coloured), ‘Aesculapius, Flora, Ceres and Cupid…’ and ‘Cupid Inspiring the Plants with Love’ (colour printed stipple-engravings finished by hand); 30 mixed-method engraved plates (mezzotint, aquatint, with some stipple) printed in colours 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. Early twentieth century half red morocco, top edge gilt, a fine, large copy.


Dunthorne, 301; Great Flower Books, p.143; Nissen (BBI), 1955; Stafleu & Cowan, 14283.


Stock ID: 97050