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 a poem included in the original text from Temple of Flora describing The Oblique-Leaved Begonia:
Where mid Columbia’s gaily- tinctur’d skies
Her mountains blue in distant ranges rise,
And o’er the deepening shades and crystal springs,
Triumphant Cupid waves his purple wings,
The fair Begonia in her verdant bower
With conscious blushes owns his sovereign power:
Conceals her secret wish by coy disdain;
Yet eyes with look oblique some fav’rite swain:
Around her soft retreat, with joy elate,
Her numerous Lovers urge the gay debate,
Besiege the easy Fair with honey ‘d tales,
And tell their passion to the laughing Gales,
In frolic mirth their hopes and fears impart,
And win by turns her dissipated heart
So Galatea from her shepherd swain
Tripp’d archly wanton o’er the flowery plain,
And laughing soft, with well-dissembled mien,
Flew to the shades, yet wishing to be seen.
Condition: Generally very good, with with the usual overall light toning, wear, handling, including faint toning associated with former matting. Margins slightly short but extend sufficiently beyond plate mark.
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.
“Full text of New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus Von Linnaeus…and the Temple of Flora.” Archive.org: https://archive.org/stream/Newillustration00Thor/Newillustration00Thor_djvu.txt (27 December 2019).
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://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/307015 (27 December 2019).