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:)