Temple of Flora departed from previous botanical works in illustrating the plants to appear oversized relative the backgrounds, giving them an overall stately, dramatic, or even surreal appearance, and making them decidedly ahead of their time. Each illustration also had poetic narrative underpinnings, reflecting the aesthetics of English Romanticism. For example, describing the Dragon Arum print, Thornton stated that “[t]he clouds are disturbed, and every thing looks wild and somber.” Lyric poems from a variety of authors were also included throughout the text alongside the straightforward botanical descriptions. The prints of Temple of Flora are now considered the greatest achievement ever in British botanical art. The plants included range from European garden flowers such as tulips, carnations and auriculas, to exotic tropical species recently introduced to the West.
Robert John Thornton began his career as a doctor. In 1797, he opened a successful practice in London. Meanwhile, he had become deeply interested in botany under the influence of Thomas Martyn’s lectures and the writings of Linnaeus. In 1797, he also began advertising for subscribers to his planned natural history publishing venture, which eventually became known as The Temple of Flora, comprised of 30 folio botanical plates (generally issued with just 28), as well as two classical allegorical plates. It was originally published as the third section of an extensive and ambitious botanical publication titled New Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnaeus.
Thornton retained some of the best artists of the day to compose the various images, as well as the best engravers to translate their work into print. Most of the images were painted by Peter Charles Henderson and Philip Reinagle, with two by Abraham Pether, who also rendered the moonlight in Reinagle’s Night-blowing Cereus, one of the best-known images from the set. The remaining two plates were painted by Sydenham Edwards and Thornton himself, who created the famous plate of Roses. The engravers were a similarly distinguished group, including Richard Earlom, James Caldwall, Thomas Sutherland, and Joseph Constantine Stadler. Some of the plates are executed in one engraved or etched medium, some in a combination of two or more, including stipple engraving, aquatint, and mezzotint. They were printed in basic colors and then enhanced with hand coloring.
In 1812, Thornton had Temple of Flora set re-engraved on a small scale for a quarto edition, with some of the compositions slightly altered. Some examples from the smaller formatted edition may have been given as prizes during the Royal Botanic Lottery under the patronage of the Prince Regent. Thornton organized the lottery when faced with bankruptcy after sales of the folio publication failed to recoup his investment, having spared no expense in its production. The lottery apparently failed to salvage his finances, and Thornton died with little money. The whereabouts of the original paintings, also included in the lottery are mostly unknown. Nevertheless, Temple of Flora remains admired as the greatest illustrated botanical set ever published in Britain for its outstanding aesthetic and imaginative qualities.
The following is the original text describing this print from Temple of Flora, in Thornton’s poetic words:
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, hues 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?
The most cursory glance may indeed shew us that diversity which Tulips exhibit: but it will require our nearer approaches to discover the distinctions in the habits, attitude, and lineaments, of the several species which have given occasion to the appellations invented by florists.
Most prominent in our group, you see a tulip, named after that unfortunate French monarch, Louis XVI, then in the meridian of his glory; and it rises above the rest with princely majesty, the edges of whose petals are stained with black, which is the true emblem of sorrow. It finely displays the six Stamina placed around the Pistillum in the centre and its three interior, and three exterior petals. Hence it comes under the Class Hexandria, Order Monogynia ; six males and one female.
The next Tulip in dignity has its six petals of a firmer structure, and is bordered with dark purple, so that the most rigid critic might excuse the fancy of the florist, who has named this flower after the man GENERAL WASHINGTON ‘Justum et tenacem propositi.’
Beneath these is La Majestieuse, whose edges are clear, but it possesses an extensive blue purple stripe in the centre of each petal. The Carnation Tulip is called by Botanists La Triomphe Royale, which for beauty of its pencilled stripes certainly triumphs over all the rest. Beneath this is the Gloria Mundi, whose yellow ground is an emblem of sublunary perfection. Its decisive dark purple lines at the edges, or in the centre of the petals at their top, together with its stately position, sufficiently characterize this individual.
The two remaining Tulips have been newly raised by Davey and Mason, and were named by me, after two very distinguished patrons of this work, Her Grace the Duchess of Devonshire, no less eminent for her fine sense and expressive beauty, than Earl Spencer, for his memorable conduct of our navy, which has eclipsed, under his administration, even the glory of our ancestors, which was previously imagined to exceed almost the bounds of human credibility. The Tulip on the top is the DUCHESS of DEVONSHIRE, and has fine dashes of a red purple on a pale straw ground. … [The] EARL SPENCER, is characterised by its numerous fine pencilled purple stripes throughout the petals.
P. S. Tulips with a white ground florists designate by the title of Bybloemen, and with a yellow ground by the name of Bizarre. So great once was the rage in Holland for Tulips, that the Burgomasters found it necessary to enact a law, that no one should give more than forty pounds for a Tulip ! Even in England, at this time, the LOUIS sells for forty Guineas, and the WASHINGTON for ten !
Condition: Generally very good, the original colors bright and fresh, with ample margins. Very faint toning associated with former matting unobtrusive. Earlier backed on archival paper likely to support slight weaknesses at plate mark, apparently quite stable and still allows for viewing early Whatman watermark, 1794. Minor discoloration and residue from former mounting far upper edge in margin, easily matted out.
Blunt, Wilfred, rev. by Stearn, William T. The Art of Botanical Illustration. Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: Antique Collectors Club, 1994. pp. 236-242.
Dunthorne, Gordon. Flower and Fruit Prints of the 18th and Early 19th Centuries. Their History, Makers and Uses, with a Catalogue Raisonne of the Works in Which They are Found. Washington, D.C.: Published by the Author, 1938.
Grigson, Geoffrey and Handasyde Buchanan. Thornton’s Temple of Flora. London: 1951.
King, Ronald, The Temple of Flora by Robert Thornton, London, Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1981.
Sitwell, Sacheverell. Great Flower Books, 1700-1900. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990. pp. 77, 127.
Stafleu, Frans A. and Richard S. Cowan. Taxonomic Literature. Utrecht: 1967. 2nd ed., Utrecht: 1976-1988. TL2 8319, Tl2 14.283.
Thomas, Alan G. Great Books and Book Collectors. Littlehampton Book Services, 1975. p.144.
Thornton, Robert John and Mrs. Robert W. Ballantine. New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus von Linnaeus: and the Temple of Flora, or Garden of Nature. London: 1807. Online at Missouri Botanical Garden: https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/32#page/10/mode/1up (27 December 2019).