Robert Thornton: The Temple of Flora

London: 1799-1807
Sp Coll e23

The Temple of Flora, the third and final part of Robert Thornton's New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus, is probably the most sumptuous and renowned of all great flower books. It contains 31 plates, produced by a variety of techniques; the impressions were printed in colour and afterwards finished by hand. No two copies are quite the same. This original elephant folio edition was originally issued to subscribers between 1799 and 1807 in parts that could later be bound together.

Robert Thornton (1768?-1837) studied medicine at Cambridge. Having developed a passion for natural history from an early age, he decided to spend his considerable inheritance in producing a splendid volume illustrating the Linnean system of classification. He employed the best artists to realize this vision, insisting that they should set their plants not against conventional plain backgrounds, nor against formal landscapes, but in the full splendour of their natural habitat. Thornton originally hoped that seventy coloured plates would illustrate the text, but subscription (at a time of great economic uncertainty) was disappointing. Ultimately, the expenses in producing the plates proved crippling. In order to stave off bankruptcy, in 1811 Thornton held a public lottery, offering as first prize the original paintings for the plates. Despite an extensive advertising campaign, the lottery failed to sell sufficient tickets and Thornton faced ruin. When he died in 1837, his family was almost destitute.

For more images and background information on this book, see the Special Collections book of the month article for April 2000.


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