One of the most ambitious books ever printed was a publishing disaster twice over but also one of the most beautiful books about flowers that exists, even if in far fewer numbers than was intended by either of its publishers.
The sheer size of the book can be glimpsed from the clamshell box that my Folio Society edition comes in. The book weighs in at 27½ lbs (12½ kg) so is definitely in literatures heavyweight division and at 22½” x 18¼” (57cm x 46½cm) is a true giant of a volume. The original was the brainchild of Robert Thornton in the second half of the 18th century and it rapidly attracted royal patronage from not just Queen Charlotte (wife of George III) but also her son the Prince of Wales and other members of the British royal family.
He sold it as a subscription edition from 1797 at a guinea per part (roughly £165 in today’s money) and there were planned to be lots of parts and he did keep going for several years. Thornton’s ambition was to create a botanical book that would be a National honour
which in Point of Magnificence is intended to exceed all other Works of a similar Nature on the Continent.
it was never to be finished…
but what he did get produced is magnificent, the flower paintings are of the finest detail and there were plans to have far more than the twenty nine that were ultimately produced before Thornton was driven into bankruptcy by the sheer scale of the venture. It has to be said that the text chosen is odd, lots of long and rambling poems rather than a scholarly text which would have been preferable in my view but it is the pictures that makes this incredible book.
There are long sections of text which presumably were intended to be broken up by the missing paintings but when you do get to the pictures the text doesn’t matter; what is important is the art, and in his way Thornton was trying to match the beauty of the flowers with literature which he perceived as equally beautiful. The fact that to modern readers the poems simply aren’t very good doesn’t mean that I don’t get a huge amount of pleasure from the book even if it is so unwieldy to actually get out and read.
The craftsmanship that went into each painting was unbelievable expensive, Thornton commissioned the best engravers and also used the new techniques of mezzotint and aquatint which allowed a true wash of colour to be reproduced rather than relying on cross-hatched engraving which had been the standard method up to that time. Quite often his artists would use all three techniques on the same plate which vastly increased the cost especially as after printing each print was hand coloured so every page is unique to the volume that it appears in.
You can properly judge the size of the book by the picture above which has a twelve inch (30cm) ruler resting on the open pages. The Folio Society edition that I have is the first time anyone had tried to reprint the book at its original size with all the plates in colour and as I hinted at in the opening sentence even the publishing experts of the Folio Society couldn’t make this book pay. They bought an original edition at auction and took it apart in order to do high resolution scans of each image before finally publishing this massive undertaking in 2008 in a planned edition of 1980 copies. The books were quarter bound in Nigerian goatskin with cloth on board sides with the front cover printed with a design taken from one of the pictures “The Night Blowing Cercus’.
Fortunately for the Society with fine limited edition books like this they bind them as customers place their order as orders did not flow in. Three and a half years later in June 2011 the Production Director wrote to all purchasers of the book explaining that the edition was being cut. Far from 1980 copies just 600 actually got bound and even then they were left with books to sell from the severely truncated limitation. The remaining 1380 sets of flower prints were sold off in a buckram and cloth portfolio as an un-numbered edition. Presumably the remainder of the pages including the five decorative (non floral) plates were pulped.
I doubt anyone will attempt to print this book at it’s original scale ever again. Collins had a go in 1951 but their edition is smaller and only twelve of the plates were colour. The Folio Society edition includes two extra loose plates intending for framing, Tulips and the Egyptian Lily both of which are shown above as they are bound within the book.