Dr Robert Thornton was the brains behind one of the most impressive and quirky of all flower books: The Temple of Flora. Despite not being either an artist or a professional botanist, he was fascinated by the rapid development in botanical knowledge of his time and convinced that Britain should be in the worldwide vanguard of both the arts and the sciences. He was also, one suspects, appropriately enough for a Valentine’s day post, at least mildly in love with George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte.
Writing at the time of the French Revolution and then Napoleon, Thornton was an ardent conservative, royalist and patriot, and intended The Temple of Flora to be a book in ‘which in Point of Magnificence is intended to exceed all other Works of a similar Nature on the Continent’. It was also designed to prove that Britain and its system of government were naturally the best in the world. Thornton, like Sir Joseph Banks, was a pioneer of botany with an imperial purpose.
Read on to see if he succeeded, and to take a closer look at some of the plates from his magnificent but wallet-breaking magnum opus.
All the illustrations come from the book unless otherwise stated, and there is a link to the complete text with the illustrations at the end of the post.
Thornton was born in 1768 and showed an early interest in botany. When he was at school he spent his free time “collecting wild plants for his garden” as well as trapping birds for an aviary and at the age of 18 sent to Cambridge to train as a clergyman. Once there he soon switched to medicine, becoming fascinated by the lectures of Thomas Martyn, Professor of Botany and a Fellow of the Royal Society. It was Martyn who introduced him to the ideas of Carl Linnaeus, with its revolutionary new system of classification, based around sex, which even today forms the backbone of such natural sciences as botany and zoology.
There is a contemporary account of his early life in The European Magazine of July 1803 which can be found in full at:
After graduating Thornton became a lecturer in medical botany at St Thomas’s and Guy’s Hospitals, and practised as a doctor. From this professional base he published a series of medical books and papers as well as a book on political philosophy but his life’s work was something else entirely: a huge publishing undertaking to promote Linnaeus and his ideas and system. He could afford to do this when he inherited the family’s fortune after the death of his elder brother.
At the time it was generally accepted that the finest botanical books were continental in origin, so Thornton ambitiously intended from the start to outdo the Germans in scholarship and the French in artistry and production quality. His intended publication New Illustration of the sexual system of Linnaeus was first advertised in 1797, a fuller Prospectus followed in 1798, with the first part of three appearing the following year for a guinea. The final part was to be The Temple of Flora, containing 70 engraved and coloured plates based on original paintings by “all the most eminent English artists”. It was, Thornton insisted, a ‘national’ undertaking and he dedicated it to Queen Caroline, wife of George III. There is an elaborate dedicatory plate in part 1 but an even more unusual plate in part 3.
In “Cupid Inspiring the Plants with Love” the god is aiming his bow at a Bird of Paradise plant. This had been named Strelitzia reginae in honour of Charlotte, the daughter of the Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, by Joseph Banks when it was introduced in 1773.
The whole work was produced on a grand scale. Printed in elephant folio size [c. 56 x 44 cm] the first two parts were concerned with Linnaeus, in particular a translation of his seminal work Species Plantarum.
It was illustrated by established botanical artists like Sydenham Edwards and James Sowerby, and a range of other artists, with the majority of images being paintings by Peter Henderson and Philip Reinagle.
Thornton then employed a group of leading engravers, including Bartolozzi, to produce the intaglio plates, using a varied combination of mezzotint, aquatint, line and stipple engraving, for printing in colour by the latest techniques. Once printed each was hand finished in watercolour.
To make matters more complicated [and expensive], most of the plates were altered from time to time during the production process, producing a different ‘state’ in each case; consequently, some plates, although nominally the same have as many as four different versions.
This means that almost no two books are the exactly the same, and sometimes they were even assembled differently, depending on what Thornton thought the subscriber would like. There are thought to be about 800 copies in existence and an American Ph.D student is currently trying to track them all down and compare them.
Book production as sophisticated as this was obviously a very costly business, and as was so often the way Thornton planned to pay for it by raising subscriptions. These could be bought by post direct from him or through a large network of booksellers across the country and abroad – all of whom are listed in one of the prospectuses.
Thornton planned to have 750 subscribers and in one of several prospectuses and advertisements he listed those who paid. At the top was Queen Charlotte herself, followed by the Prince and Princess of Wales, the Princess of Württemberg, the Duke and Princess of Gloucester, then 9 other ‘foreign kings and potentates’, before reaching down to the nobility and a surprising number of medical gentlemen. Unfortunately such illustrious patronage did not stop income from sales from being disappointing.
The book was undoubtedly a luxury. It was produced under the economic constraints of wartime, and taxes were rising. So, in 1803, Thornton opened a gallery in London to exhibit the original art work, promote subscriptions and sell catalogues, in the hope of increasing interest in his project. Sadly this did not improve sales much either.
Nonetheless other folio parts followed, until, in 1807, the ‘whole’ set of prints and commentaries was republished in one book. In fact it was never a ‘whole’ set, since Thornton had originally intended to have 70 or even 90 plates [accounts vary] but unfortunately, in the end, his pocket wasn’t as big as his ambition and the money ran out after just 33.
Faced with financial ruin Thornton published a smaller quarto version in 1812 :Temple of Flora, or Garden of the botanist, poet, painter and philosopher. Through his influential contacts and patrons he also managed to get a private act of Parliament to allow him to set up a “Royal Botanical Lottery”, with the original paintings as the first prize, and other sets of prints for runners-up. 20,000 tickets were issued at two guineas each.
Despite an extensive advertising campaign, the lottery failed too. Thornton blamed the war with France for his failure, but like many others, including probably most famously Ellen Willmott, he had probably just allowed his botanical heart to overrule his financial head.
To make ends meet, Thornton turned his hand back to writing and a long stream of books followed – medical, botanic and even Latin primers and Roman histories. Nevertheless when he died in 1837, his family was left almost destitute.
Thornton’s admiration for Linnaeus’s ideas is at the centre of New Illustration. As a result the book is not just restricted to images of the “choicest flowers” in the world, but also included portraits of well-known botanists. Linnaeus himself appears several times, but there is also one of Sir Thomas Millington, now long forgotten, who had put forward a theory of plant sexuality in the late 17thc.
The first two volumes of Thornton’s text revolved around a translation of Linnaeus’s ‘Prize dissertation’ on the sexuality of plants. The third consisted of the colour plates, but included with them was a large range of other material, much of which is at first sight completely irrelevant to what one might assume is the book’s primary botanical purpose. In fact the book had a far wider aim in mind- what Martin Kemp his biographer in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography calls the “universal human and religious purposes of botanical learning in Thornton’s system of thought.”
Thornton was horrified by the atheism and republicanism of the French revolution, and saw botanical science, especially now Linnaeus had shown a clear pattern to nature, as a way of instilling feelings of awe for divine providence. The plant world, according to Thornton, offered moral and political examples to humanity, although we might be hard put to understand all of his logic today.
Yet the text is vital to an understanding of the illustrations, impressive though they are in their own right. As Wilfrid Blunt put it in The Art of Botanical Illustration “Thornton’s prose style plays a valuable part in creating the peculiar atmosphere of the book. His phraseology is ‘… charmingly evocative of his age’ In particular they show the lack of a hard division between the arts and the sciences as exists now.
Thornton’s friends and contemporaries such as Erasmus Darwin were known both for their artistic as well as their scientific interests. They wrote about philosophy, aesthetics and botany as well as composing epic poetry, Against that background Thornton’s inclusion of elaborate calligraphic title-pages, verbose descriptions of each plant including appropriate poetry (some translated from Greek, Latin and Persian), together with essays on ‘Hindoo mythology’ and tales from China is more easily understood.
The colour plates, many well-known, are equally evocative, although perhaps they are dramatic rather than charming. What they are clearly not are traditional botanical or scientific illustrations. Instead Thornton has his plants set in landscapes, even sometimes in nocturnal scenes. The artists also employ a conceit invented by the romantics of composing a picture with a foreground subject, and a background, but without any intervening middle distance.
As a result each plate is strikingly different. Thornton has the artist evoke the plant’s origins, their seasonality, their associations & symbolism, and, argues Martin Kemp in the ODNB, “their significance within the spiritual system of meaning in God’s creation.”
Let Thornton himself explain: “So, in our picturesque botanical plates the reader must not expect to see yew trees cut into various forms, longed avenues of upright timber, gravel-walks meeting to some circular basin of water, or a cascade playing its forced part, statues stationed at the four corners of a smooth carpet of turf, labyrinths, boats on the water fashioned like a swan, cards to keep the Calyx is from bursting, upright sticks, and regular disposition, that place where leisure in trim garden takes his pleasure. But each scenery is appropriate to the subject....”
“…Thus in the ‘Night blowing cereus’ you have the moon playing on the dimpled water, and the turret-clock points X I I, the hour at night when this flower is in its full expanse.”
With the bizarre flower posed in the half-light before a gothic tower , this, perhaps more than any other floral painting, is an expression of the late 18thc sentiment of the sublime but also shows the way to the romantic vision of nature as well.The ‘American cowslip’ [nowadays, after Linneaus Dodecathon ] is depicted on the sea shore with sailing ships in the background. Thornton writes:
“…in its perfect state it might easily raised to our fancy the image of a vegetable sky-rocket in different periods of explosion, or some might conceive it to resemble a number of like shuttlecocks, fluttering in the air.… It comes under his class V.Pentendria, 5 males, order 1. Monogynia, one female, and in our reformed system, Class V Stamina, Order 1, Pistillum. it is thus elegantly personified by Dr Darwin.
Meadia’s ‘s soft chains five suppliant Beaux confess,and hand-in-hand the laughing Belle address; alike to all, she bows with wanton air, rolls her dark eyes, and waves her golden hair…”
The background settings are also important, sometimes to make a philosophical or political point.
“In our Picturesque Plate, we have introduced a distant view of Aboukir, and the waters of the Nile, whether blue Lotus is found in great abundance, and which tends much to enliven the scene.” This setting was chosen to allow Thornton to denounce the “arrogant soul” of Napoleon at length, and triumph in “the thunder of British arms, which providence had destined to annihilate his proud army”, before going on to declaim about Nelson’s victory in the Battle of the Nile, complete with a gloating list of French ships lost. This is all accompanied by poetry, including some by Erasmus Darwin, as well as voluminous footnotes.
The patriotic note is taken one stage further in his depiction of the rose, the only one of the plates which he painted himself.
Thornton writes: “Nature has given her a vest of purest white, and also imperial robes of the brightest scarlet; and that no rude hand should tear her from her rich domain, she is protected by a myriad of soldiers, who present on every side their naked and sharp swords against the daring invader.” Hardly a suitably scientific description to put it mildly, but of course Thornton isn’t just writing a botanical book. Re-read the description against the context of the times and, like the comments about the Battle of the Nile above, it begins to fall into place, and if you read the rose as personifying England it all makes sense.
Elsewhere everything is a mish-mash of styles. Beautifully painted passion flowers are coupled with religious homilies, whilst the ‘Dragon arum’ displays the ‘confusion dire’ of its phallic sexual parts in front of a stormy volcanic eruption. Copious footnotes outline for example, the migratory habits of the nightingale, Jenner’s discoveries about cuckoos and cowpox and even the use of carpets in mosques.
BUT The Temple of Flora changed botanical art for ever.
There were none of the plain austere backgrounds used by its contemporaries such as Curtis’s Botanical Magazine. Instead Thornton employed moody, dramatic imagery – one might almost call it the botanical version of the sublime – to represent, even if fancifully, their historical or allegorical backgrounds. It was the forerunner of an alternative way of representing plants that saw its heyday in the colourful and flamboyant work of Marianne North later in the century.
The result is what Peter Parker called “one of the world’s most magnificent and idiosyncratic flower books.” For the rest of his very readable article written at the time of its reissue by the Folio Society in 2008 for a mere £799 see:
As Sacheverell Sitwell commented, The Temple of Flora is ‘an entire age condensed into a book’. [Great flower books, 1700-1900, 1956] so if you wish to own your own copy and aren’t feeling rich enough for the Folio society edition then there are cheaper reprints or, of course, you can read/download it for free at: