University of Glasgow


Part of the Library and University Services

Please note that these pages are from our old (pre-2010) website; the presentation of these pages may now appear outdated and may not always comply with current accessibility guidelines.

Book of the Month

April 2000

Robert Thornton

The Temple of Flora

London: 1799-1807

Sp Coll e23

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 probably the most sumptuous and renowned of all great flower books. It contains thirty-one plates which were produced by a variety of 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; consequently, 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 44 cm), of which hardly any two copies are quite the same. It was originally issued to subscribers in parts which later could be bound up. In 1807 it was further published in book form. As well as the plates, it consists of a series of elaborate calligraphic title-pages, verbose descriptions of each plant including appropriate poetry, and explanatory notes.

The cyclamen shown here (Cyclamen persicum) closely resembles the wild forms of the flower found in the Near East, but it does not occur in Persia.

Plate 20: The Persian Cyclamen
Aquatint, stipple and line

Plate 22: A Group of Roses
Mezzotint and line

The artists who contributed to the volume included Peter Henderson, Philip Reinagle, Abraham Pether and Sydenham Edwards; Thornton himself was responsible for the illustration of the group of roses.

Robert Thornton (1768?-1837) was the son of Bonnell Thornton, a successful miscellaneous writer; he studied medicine at Cambridge. The death of his father, mother and elder brother left him with a considerable fortune. Thornton, who had developed a passion for natural history from an early age, decided to spend his inheritance in producing a splendid volume illustrating the Linnean sysem of classification. The New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus was issued between 1799 and 1807. 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

Plate 46 shown on the left includes the distant view of Aboukir and the waters of the Nile where the Blue Egyptian Water Lily, or Blue Lotus, is found in great abundance.

The group of auriculas on the right was painted by Philip Reinagle (1749-1833). Early in his career, he specialized in portraiture, but he later diversified into animal painting and landscapes. He contributed several of the plates in The Temple of Flora, including that of the tulips.

Plate 24: A Group of Auriculas

Plate 25: Tulips

The depiction of tulips is one of the most justly famous plates in The Temple of Flora. 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, 1798, 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 the earlier state.

A close-up of the carnation tulip is displayed here. Thornton writes:

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 great personal leisure for the wealthy. The flowering of a new plant was a triumph to be shown off - an exciting and sufficiently unusual event for it to be recorded in the best and most lavish manner possible. Other great botanical works from the period include Curtis's Flora Londinensis (1777-1787) and Smith & Sowerby's English botany (1790-1814).

Plate 25: detail showing carnation tulip

Plate 29: Night blowing cereus

Thornton insisted that his artists should set their plants not against conventional plain backgrounds, nor against 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 realize Thornton's vision in this instance: the flower was painted by Reinagle, while the landscape artist Abraham Pether (1756-1812) did the moonlight. In our copy, the plate is in its 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.

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 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 made at a time when war with France was resulting in increased taxation and subsequent economic constraints. Ultimately, the expenses in producing the plates 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 first prize the original paintings for the plates. In the interests of the winners, the copperplates 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 ruin. When he died in 1837, his family was almost destitute.

His great vision, The Temple of Flora, is now permanently established as one of the greatest prizes of collectors of fine flower-books.

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

Described by Geoffrey Grigson; with bibliographical notes by Handasyde Buchanan Thornton's Temple of Flora Sp Coll e24; Sacheverell Sitwell and Wilfred Blunt, with a bibliography edited by Patrick M. Synge Great flower books, 1700-1900; a bibliographical record of two centuries of finely illustrated flower books Sp Coll e7

See the online exhibition Perennial Pages for details about some of the other flower books held in Special Collections.

Return to main Special Collections Exhibition Page

Julie Coleman April 2000