Broadsheets (22 3/4 x 17 1/2 in.; 578 x 445 mm). Binding: Contemporary diced russia, spine elaborately gilt-tooled in seven compartments, covers with acanthus-tooled gilt borders, central panels with gilt floral corner-pieces.
Bound-in wrapper somewhat darkened, marginal soiling to frontispiece, some minor thumb-soiling and spotting in margins of some plates, occasional offsetting to text. Binding with neat restoration to spine, some rubbing and wear, few gouges on lower cover, endpapers renewed.
Conceived on a grandiose scale, New Illustration was to comprise three parts: a dissertation on the sexual reproductive cycle of plants; an explanation of Linnæus's plant system, lavishly illustrated with botanical plates and portraits of botanists; and "The Temple of Flora," which was to have no less than 70 large plates of exotic plant species arranged according to the classification system of Linnæus. Each species was to appear in its native environment. The production of the plates for "The Temple of Flora" involved a variety of techniques—aquatint, mezzotint, stipple engraving, and stippling with line engraving, or etching, which required the participation of a large number of artists. Among those commissioned by Thornton were Philip Reinagle, who executed most of the preparatory drawings; Abraham Pether, known for his moody quasi-Gothic landscapes; Sydenham Edwards and Peter Henderson; and the engravers Richard Earlom, James Caldwall, and Thomas Burke. Only the plate of the Rose was drawn by Thornton and executed by Earlom. In spite of using a host of artists and engravers, Thornton managed to "maintain a remarkable homogeneity of style throughout" (An Oak Spring Flora), but production was a protracted stop-and-go affair, causing the text and plates to appear irregularly, and to bring Thornton ultimately to the brink of personal bankruptcy. Because some plates were withdrawn or reworked in the course of publication, it is not possible to establish a definitive collation of the work.
For his contribution to English botanical illustration, Thornton has been compared to Redouté by Alan Thomas: "[M]ore or less coeval with Redouté in France came the production of the greatest English colour-plate flower book. … What Redouté produced under the patronage of L'Héritier, Marie Antionette, the Empress Josephine, Charles X and the Duchesse de Berry, Thornton set out to do alone. … The result was almost total failure. … His fortune was engulfed and his family reduced to penury. … It is easy to raise one's eyebrows at Thornton's unworldly and injudicious approach to publishing … but he produced … the most strikingly beautiful set of flower plates ever to be printed in England [and] one of the loveliest books in the world" (Great Books and Book Collectors, pp. 142–144).
A magnificent copy of the most celebrated work of English botanical illustration and a hallmark of Romantic sensibility. That a book of botanical illustration could come to summarize the Age of Romanticism is a tribute to Thornton's imaginative genius. "To arrive at Thornton is to boil down all the diversities of the time in architecture, poetry, painting, fiction, music, from Walpole and Sir William Chambers to Shelley and the music of Weber, by way of Chatterton writing in Gothic or African mood of Medieval Bristol or reeking tigers, by way of the wild imaginings of Turner, or Martin or Francis Danby, by way of elements even in Blake, in Coleridge, in Wordsworth. An age is packed into these folio plates which Thornton directed" (Geoffrey Grigson in Thornton's Temple of Flora, p. 12).
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