Book of the Month: The Temple of Flora [Sp Coll e23]

This series revisits our Book of the Month archive to highlight some of our favourite articles and explore the ASC collections they describe with fresh eyes.   

This article was originally published on April 2000 by Julie Coleman and the full article can still be found on our website in the Book of the Month archive 

The Temple of Flora, the third and final part of Robert John Thornton’s New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus, is the most ambitious part of this work of botanical science and arguably the most renowned of all exceptional flower books.

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Plate 17: Aesculapius, Flora, Ceres & Cupid honouring the bust of Linnaeus – Stipple. 

Containing thirty-one plates produced by a variety of complex and time-consuming techniques including aquatint, mezzotint, stipple and line engraving, the impressions were printed in colour and afterwards finished by hand. During production, most of the plates were altered or added to from time to time, producing a different ‘state’ in each case. As such, some plates have as many as four different states.  

This is a copy of the original elephant folio edition (measuring a vast c.56 x 44cm), of which hardly any two copies are quite the same. It was originally issued to subscribers in parts, which could later be bound together, and then in 1807, it was published in book form. As well as the artistic floral plates, it also consists of a series of elaborate calligraphic title-pages, verbose descriptions of each plant including appropriate poetry, and some explanatory notes.  

A number of artists contributed to the volume including Peter Henderson, Philip Reinagle, Abraham Pether and Sydenham Edwards. Thornton himself was responsible for the illustration of the group of roses, displayed below. 

Plate 22: A group of Roses – Mezzotint and Line.

Robert Thornton (c.1768-1837) was the son of Bonnell Thornton, a successful miscellaneous writer. He went on to study medicine at Cambridge, becoming a physician and botanical writer. Following the death of his father, mother and elder brother, he was left to inherit a considerable fortune. Having developed a passion for natural history at an early age, he decided to spend his inheritance on producing a splendid volume illustrating the Linnean system of classification. The New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus was issued between 1799 and 1807 in London. Thornton insisted that his great work was a ‘national’ undertaking and dedicated it to Queen Caroline, consort of George III.  

Plate 46: The Blue Egyptian Water Lily – Aquatint.

Plate 46 (shown above) includes the distant view of Abu Quir, Egypt (also, Aboukir or Abukir) and the waters of the Nile where the Blue Egyptian Water Lily, or Blue Lotus, is found in great abundance.

Plate 24: A group of Auriculas – Aquatint.

The group of auriculas (as shown above) was painted by Philip Reinagle (1749-1833). Early in his career, he specialised in portraiture, but he later diversified into animal painting and landscapes. He contributed to several of the plates in The Temple of Flora, including that of the tulips. The depiction of the tulips is justly one of the this work’s most famous plates. English writer and art critic, Sacheverell Sitwell, remarked that it: 

‘displays the flower in its forgotten faculties after two centuries of performance in the hands of Dutch, English and French florists, and puts to shame the tame colours of the tulip as it is known today.’

Produced on 1st May 1978, this was the first print to be published by Thornton. This is a copy of the plate in its second state: the windmill in the middle being visible and the fields in the foreground having bushes and more definition than in the earlier state.  

Plate 25: Tulips – Mezzotint.
Plate 25: detail showing Carnation Tulip.

A close-up of the carnation tulip is displayed above, on which Thornton remarked:

The carnation tulip is called by Botanists La Triomphe Royale, which for beauty of its pencilled stripes certainly triumphs over all the rest.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when many great flower books were produced, were times of significant personal leisure for the wealthy. The flowering of a new plant was a triumph to be celebrated and shown off, deemed an exciting and sufficiently unusual event for it to be recorded in the best and most lavish manner possible. This meant there was the belief that it was worthwhile to document this range of flowers in such a time-consuming, but ultimately rewarding, way.  

Thornton insisted that his artists should not set their plants against conventional plain backgrounds or formal landscapes, but in the full splendour of their natural habitat. He wrote: 

Each scenery is appropriated to the subject. Thus in the night-blowing Cereus you have the moon playing on the dimpled water, and the turret-clock points XII, the hour at night when this flower is in its full expanse.‘ 

Two artists were employed to realise Thornton’s vision in this instance: the flower was painted by Reinagle, while the landscape artist, Abraham Pether (1756-1812), an English landscape painter and talented musician, did the moonlight. In our copy, the plate is in is lesser used state ‘B’ where the dot between the XII and I on the clock is visible and the centre of the Cereus has no dark spot. 

Plate 29: Night-blowing Cereus – Mezzotint.

Some of the plates have been criticised for being a little absurd in their extravagance. While it is true, for example, that the Night-blowing Cereus does open up after sunset, it is not likely to flourish in an English churchyard, as depicted here. However, such inaccuracies can be forgiven: rather than being regarded as a document of scientific worth, the appeal of this monumental book today is largely emotional – its dramatic engravings and accompanying flamboyant prose redolent of a past age of romanticism.  

Thornton originally hoped that seventy coloured plates would illustrate the text, but subscription for the parts was disappointing. This was an expensive, luxury purchase at a time when war with France was resulting in increased taxation and subsequent economic constraints. Ultimately, the expenses involved in the production of the plates, coupled with the underwhelming subscription rate, proved crippling.  

In order to stave off bankruptcy, in 1811 Thornton had to persuade Parliament to allow him to hold a public lottery, offering, as the first prize, the original paintings for the plates. In the interests of the winners, the copper-plates from which the engravings had been made, were to be destroyed. 600 sets of plates from a lottery edition of the book, published in 1812, were given as prizes of the fourth class. This was a smaller folio, containing 32 plates which are said to be much inferior to those of the original edition. Despite an extensive advertising campaign, the lottery failed to sell sufficient tickets and Thornton faced ruined. He died in 1837, destitute.  

Robert Thornton’s great vision, The Temple of Flora, is now permanently established as one of the greatest prizes of collectors of fine flower books.



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