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    • Many people have digitized and republished the incredibly beautiful floral paintings found in the 1807 volume, New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus, by the British botanist Robert John Thornton, M.D. (1768–1837). Taschen’s blog included some interesting notes about the project.

      Apparently, this was a very large undertaking. Thanks to an inheritance, Dr. Thornton was able to commission top English painters to illustrate the plants he was featuring. But the book didn’t sell too well and the good doctor—though he tried everything to keep things going including a lottery—was left in financial ruin. There were some 70 plant plates planned but less than half were completed. “His bold design to create a magnificent work with famous artists at his own expense had failed.” I feel so sorry for him!

      Another interesting tidbit is that Thornton produced copies of his book using different combinations of the plates so there are no two copies exactly alike. While most of the recent focus has been on the images, the text of the book is equally wonderful, with many poems and references begging to be found by a new audience.

      Here are some of the plates I enhanced with Photoshop along with excerpts transcribed from the scanned copy I found at the Missouri Botanical Garden, Peter H. Raven Library.

      Much ahead of his time, Dr. Thornton opines on the bad rap given to the carnation. Despite its species name, dianthus caryophyllus, (where dianthus is derived from Greek as meaning “divine flower”) you know when Shakespeare declares carnations “Nature’s bastards” there is no turning back! I feel certain many suitors found this out the hard way when their beloved was expecting nothing less than long-stemmed beauties.

      Excerpt from “A Group of Carnations” (keeping to the author’s original spellings and format).

      The Carnation, so deservedly esteemed both for its superior beauty and rich spicy odour, must certainly have been unknown to the ancients, or it would have been described by naturalists as the rival of the Rose, and as such sung by poets. In its wild state it has five small red petals, and attracts no notice from its beauty, nor has it in that state any scent. So the Eastern Tulip, in its wild state, is of one uniform red. Art accomplishes all the rest. Then it is this Flower deserves the appellation given it by botanists, Dianthus, the Flower of Jove. Some have affected to despise the Florist’s care, and hence these beautiful nurselings are denominated by them Monsters, because the petals are augmented, as in the double Rose, at the expense of the Stamina, and often of the Pistilla. Shakspeare notices this strange effect produced by art.

      Sir, the year is growing ancient,
      Not yet on summer’s death, nor on the birth
      Of trembling winter; the fairest flowers o’ th’ season
      Are our Carnations, and streak’d Gilly-flowers,
      Which some call Nature’s Bastards:—of that kind
      Our rustic garden’s barren, and I care not
      To get slips of them.

      (The Shakespeare quote is Perdita speaking in The Winter’s Tale, Act 4 Scene 4:)

    • Excerpt from “Tulips”

      As each individual Tulip shews a marked variety, so when grouped together, you have a striking display of the wonderful power of the beneficent Creator, who has placed these beautiful objects before us, for our recreation, and admiration! Enveloped between two transparent skins is found the colouring ingredients, so admirably disposed in a pulpy body, constituting the interior structure of each petal! How much does the imitative power of painting fall short in trying to represent these ravishing beauties of the vegetable world!

      ……………………….For who indeed can paint
      Like Nature? Can Imagination boast,
      Amid his gay creation, lines like these?
      And can he mix them with that matchless skill,
      And lay them on so delicately fine,
      And make these varied marks so just and true,
      That each shall tell the name denoting
      Its peculiar birth?

    • Excerpt from “Night-Blowing Cereus, or, Cactus Grandiflorus”.

      This plant is called by Linnaeus large-flowering Cactus, on account of the comparative largeness of its flower, which, in its native country, Jamaica, is often more than a foot in diameter. It has the appellation also of Night-blowing Cereus from its opening its beautiful flowers after sun-set. Others have styled it the Thorch Thistle, from the armature about its pentangular, articulated, and climbing stem, which is leafless, succulent, and exhibits to the observer a figure equally grotesque as terrific, with flowers possessing actually the blazing appearance of a torch. I have sometimes seen in our hot-houses twenty or thirty of these flowers expanded in the same evening, emitting all the while a fine balsamic odour.

      The Cereus is thus personified by Dr. Darwin in his Loves of the Plants.

      Refulgent Cerea! the dusky hour
      She seeks with pensive step the mountain-bower,
      Bright as the blush of rising morn, and warms
      The dull cold eye of midnight with her charms.
      There to the skies she lifts her pencil’d brows,
      Opes her fair lips, and breathes her virgin vows;
      Eyes the white zenith; counts the suns that roll
      Their distant fires, and blaze around the pole;
      Or marks where Jove directs his glittering car
      O’er Heaven’s blue vault,... Herself a brighter star.
      ...There as soft zephyrs sweep with pausing airs
      Thy snowy neck, and part thy shadowy hairs,
      Sweet Maid of Night! to Cynthia’s sober beams
      Glows thy warm cheek, thy polish’d bosom gleams.
      In crowds around thee gaze the admiring swains,
      And guard in silence the enchanted plains;
      Drop the still tear, or breathe the impassion’d sigh,
      And drink inebriate rapture from thine eye.

    • Thanks to an inheritance, Dr. Thornton was able to commission top English painters to illustrate the plants he was featuring. But the book didn’t sell too well and the good doctor—though he tried everything to keep things going including a lottery—was left in financial ruin. 

      Sad, and quite interesting to me...

      I’m currently indexing a book about the revival of tapestry as an art form in the early twentieth century. Artists were commissioned to create images (called cartoons) that were then used as patterns in weaving tapestries. There followed a very contentious debate as to whether the tapestries were just inferior copies of great art, or first-rate art themselves. Even back then, there were resentments against “disruption” as well as entrepreneurship, and there was also a fair amount of gender politics as well.

      Even though artists tend to take themselves quite seriously, I have found the Art World can be just as fickle as anything. Apparently, Dr. Thornton learned this the hard way. :(

    • I love the enhancements you’ve done in Photoshop. Quite beautiful illustrations and the poetry makes clear that this was a labor of love for a passionate enthusiast of the flower. Perhaps it was a quixotic quest from the beginning, to invest his inheritance and everything else to the point of bankruptcy. However, financial success or not it is a quite a stunning collection. Do you know why he chose to change the plate order with each individual printing?

    • @DangerDave I love Taschen books, great people there, too! I hadn't seen 1000 Record Covers, looks great. When I was on their site looking at their blog about Dr. Thornton, I discovered this book that I've put on my wish list. It has 800+ images!

    • Yes, very sad, @lidja, that was my feeling, too. Your book project sounds fascinating and it rings a bell for me about the story of tapestry art controversy. Was there a movie about a woman who did this or am I dreaming? Maybe it was a documentary, but I'm thinking of a movie about a woman who lived in a very remote part of New England around the turn of the 20th Century. Does this book go into the time and difficulty of creating these tapestries? Woven arts are not easy and at the level of reproducing master paintings that is no small feat. My grandmother always stressed how important it is to have the back look as nice and tidy as the front! My embroidery and quilting efforts have no doubt been stymied by her rule, lol, but I learned to give up on perfection and have started working on a quilt again.

    • Thank you, @StephenL, I agree, the collection is stunning and I'm not exactly sure why he changed the plate order. I'm thinking it's because the paintings took a long time to commission and they were completed over time as he was printing the books. Wikipedia says there were 800 copies made, and I can only imagine the painstaking bookmaking processes of the day.

      I believe there were three volumes but only the "Temple of Flora" contained the paintings. Here is a link to a copy of the digitized book:

      I note an Audubon foundation in the Florida Keys had a post about him and they were selling reproductions of the paintings at one point several years ago.

      "Thornton continued work on his great undertaking and in 1803, he opened a gallery in London. There he exhibited the original paintings and sold catalogs. The primary objective was to publicize the folio of engravings as it was being published and released."

      Here are Dr. Thornton's impressive credentials and his portrait. Isn't it interesting he chose a beehive to be his symbol? He was well aware of how bees are of great importance to everything!

      • Member of Trinity College, Cambridge;
      • One of the Council of the London Medical Society;
      • Honorary Member of the Medical and Physical Societies of Guy’s Hospital, of Bartholomew’s Hospital, and of the Lyceum Medicum Londinense;
      • Member of Several Learned Academies and Societies Abroad;
      • Lecturer on Medical Botany to the United Hospitals of Guy and St. Thomas;
      • Late Physician to the St. Maryle-Bonne General Dispensary;
      • Author of The Philosophy of Botany; The Philosophy of Medicine; and of The Philosophy of Politics, &c.

    • Thank you, @Denise, I am so glad to be able to share them. Here is the book's listing for the Rhododendron, which is a special flower to me. I grew up in Mendocino, where Rhodos are second only to the state Poppy, and we had an annual Rhododendron Festival. The first was held May 1-2, 1937, and the Festival Queen was crowned by Fay Lamphier Daniels, formerly Miss America of 1925. That was a big deal for our little town back then!

      The book has many poems written by a Dr. Shaw of the British Museum, including this one for the Rhododendron entry:

      Rhododendron Ponticum, or, Pontic Rhododendron

      O'er pine-clad hills, and dusky plains,
      In silent state Rhodonia reigns,
      And spreads, in beauty's softest bloom,
      Her purple glories through the gloom.

      There, by the solemn scene enchanted,
      The melancholy maiden strays;
      And by dark streams and fountains haunted,
      Well pleas'd each rocky wild surveys:
      To her more fair those shadowy bowers
      Than glittering halls and castled tow'rs.

      Nor, happy less, who thus unknown,
      Can call the woods and shades his own!
      And, wand'ring o'er the moss-clad plain,
      At will indulge the pensive strain!
      Array'd in smiles, array'd in terrors,
      Great Nature's awful form admire,
      And from the world, and all its errors,
      In silent dignity retire!

    • This particular book will be published by the Barnes Foundation. It focuses on the work of Marie Cuttoli, who was an entrepreneur in the early twentieth century. She commissioned tapestry cartoons (images) from (now famous) modern artists and had them woven in Aubusson, the center of tapestry-making in France. Like Dr. Thornton, she was an art-lover, not an art-maker. Even though she was a key figure in helping to create economic recovery for artists and artisans after the first world war, she was eventually “trashed” by the male artist she supported the most, along with some (male) critics and historians. However, Barnes supported her throughout. It is quite a story.

    • So interesting @lidja, and it sounds as though Marie Cuttoli should be included in the list of "Important people you've never heard of." How horrid that these artists turned on her and how great to have the Barnes Foundation take up her cause a century later, hopefully as a cautionary tale if nothing else! When the book is available, will you give us a link to it here if you remember?

    • I dusted my bookcase today and thumbed through these again. I have another of their Warhol books somewhere, but these are the favourite Taschens in my Library.

    • Thank you, @Chris! It was so fun discovering this book and I especially loved transcribing the poems. And where else but Cake can you find a conversation thread that weaves together Miss America 1925, Shakespeare, Biodiversity, and tapestry revival?!