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Stuart Thornton: The Master of Pressed Botanicals

From The Collection of Mrs. John Gutfreund

Stuart Thornton’s botanicals took root in the intricate gardens and lavish interiors of European villas. Mr. Thornton, an effervescent Brit, was Gianni and Marella Agnelli’s majordomo and ran all fifteen of their residences around the world. He had the privilege of spending his leisure time in the Agnelli’s award winning gardens of Villar Perosa (restored with the help of Russel Page) and Villa Frescot, both outside of Turin, as well as Alzipratu in Corsica, and others in Marrakech, Saint-Mortiz, Paris, and Rome. Each of these gardens was beautifully planned, nurtured and cultivated by Marella Agnelli for whom Thornton created the pressed flower arrangements. The first group of botanicals he made for Marella Agnelli was a set of one hundred made with plants from her enchanting garden in Corsica, which later decorated a wall of her villa, Alzipratu.

Stuart Thornton has always been drawn to plants and flowers, especially those with bold colors and curious forms. Not all plants can be successfully dried, pressed, arranged and framed; it takes a particular eye to determine which plants to choose, and a lot of patience since the pressing and drying process can take up to six months. Thornton sometimes added a bit of powered pigment to flowers to enhance the color, as can be seen in Lot # 372, the sunflowers on black paper. His arrangements range in complexity from simple fern leaves to a large group of hydrangeaceae hilia, as seen in Lot # 3. We are pleased to have five lots of Mr. Thornton’s rare works for auction.

Susan Gutfreund was so impressed with Stuart Thornton’s work, having seen them at the Agnelli’s homes in Europe, that she commissioned him to create pieces for her country home in Villanova, Pennsylvania. A set of thirty-three Thornton botanicals, Lot # 345, enlightened a dark hallway on the second floor. The large gunnera chilernsis (Chilean rhubarb), Lot # 1, greeted visitors in the front hall. Susan Gutfreund wasn’t the only Agnelli guest to be taken by Thornton’s botanicals, the Begum Aga Khan acquired four years’ worth of his work and “papered” her home in the south of France, as did famed New York designer, Frank di Biasi for an overseas client.

Now that Stuart Thornton has retired to the north of England, he prefers to work with ferns and grasses as they can be deconstructed and rearranged. The grasses often turn a rich golden color which he finds delightful to use in his artwork. He is still inspired by the beautiful bucolic countryside and gardens of his homeland and continues to dry, press, and rearrange nature to create enchanting organic compositions.

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