Dr. Robert Thornton
Temple of Flora is perhaps the single most famous of all florilegia. Dr. Robert Thornton was not primarily an artist. However, he was the visionary and driving force behind its creation. To produce it, he employed a coterie of the finest British artists and engravers of his day. Born in 1768, the year his father died, Thornton developed an avid interest in studying nature early in his formal studies. He kept a small garden and caught his own specimens for an aviary. At first, he was intended for a life in the church, but after he listened to botanical lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge, he chose a career in medicine. Upon the early death of his brother, and three years later the death of his mother, Dr. Thornton inherited his family’s fortune. Later in life, Thornton wrote that the idea for his great undertaking was conceived in 1791. Planning for A New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus von Linnaeus began years later, in 1797. It was meant to be a patriotic work celebrating the artistic superiority of the British over the French while glorifying the “Philosophy of Botany,” including the Linnaean system of classification. The work was to contain three parts: Part I was to be on the sex of plants, as stated by Linnaeus in 1759; Part II on the sexual system of classification; and Part III, entitled Temple of Flora, would comprise “picturesque botanical plates” depicting the system. On May 1, 1798, Tulips and The Aloe, were the first plates engraved (by Medland) from paintings by Philip Reinagle. Between 1798 and 1807 a total of thirty-three extraordinarily evocative colored plates were engraved in aquatint, stipple and line from original paintings by noted British artists. Originally, Thornton intended to issue seventy ‘folio’ size color plates. Thornton continued work on his great undertaking and in 1803, he opened a gallery in London. There he exhibited the original paintings and sold catalogs. The primary objective was to publicize the folio of engravings as it was being published and released. In 1808, noted explorer and the first unofficial director of Kew, Sir Joseph Banks, wrote, “I cannot say that Botany continues to be as fashionable as it used to be.” Thornton was financially ruined by setbacks brought on by war and changing tastes. These proved to be only temporary, and his great work went on to become a “lasting heirloom for the British nation.” Desperate to continue funding his work, Thornton now embarked on his wildest scheme. He applied for and was granted permission by Parliament to hold a fantastic lottery. For prizes he produced a quarto, or miniature, edition of The Temple of Flora. First prize was to be the entire contents of the gallery. The lottery failed to attract ample participants and Thornton died destitute, financially ruined by his dream.