Dr. Robert John Thornton
(1768 – 1837)
Temple of Flora
The story of the making of Dr. Robert John Thornton’s opus, Temple of Flora, is inextricably entwined with the history of botany, eighteenth century exploration of unknown continents, and the resultant fascination with newly-discovered exotic plant species brought back to Europe. A passion for discovery was at the forefront of the collaborative achievements of enlightened scientists, artists and explorers and their patrons. As explorers traveled the globe, interest in collecting new species of plants increased. This heightened the excitement surrounding all things botanical. Dr. Thornton came of age during this time of artists and botanists working together under royal patronage to describe, illustrate and celebrate newly discovered botanical wonders. Thornton was challenged to demonstrate Britain’s artistic superiority in this field.
Modern botany began with the sexual system of plant classification devised by Carl Linnaeus. Born in Sweden in 1707, Linnaeus was introduced to botanical classification while preparing to become a doctor. At that time, botany was taught alongside physiology as part of medical education. Linnaeus was drawn to study the new plant classification systems and went on to devote himself to botanical classification. It was his system of binomial nomenclature that expanded interest in the science of botany and first inspired Dr. Thornton’s “grand concept.”
In England, Frederick, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of George II lived at Kew. He was interested in science, exotic plants and landscaping. John Stuart, Earl of Bute, was an avid botanist who guided Frederick’s interests. They shared ambitious plans for “his contrivances, designs for improvements in his Gardens.” Frederick died in 1751 before realizing his plans for building the Great Stove (hothouse). Bute, however, remained friends with Frederick’s widow, Princess Augusta, and early on mentored her son, the future King George III. In 1759, Bute persuaded Augusta to set aside nine acres of her garden, thereby founding the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
Plant collectors were sent by King George III in the aftermath of Captain James Cook’s first voyage in the South Seas. During the 1790s, Captain Bligh, on another mission after the mutiny on the Bounty, brought a large group of plants from the West Indies. From the Far East, Chinese roses were brought to Europe. George III fostered Kew Botanic Garden’s continued growth. By 1768 more than 3,400 species were grown there. Royal patronage also fostered a surge in botanical illustration.
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.
The Thornton set which resides at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew is of special note for multiple reasons. It bears the bookplate of Sir William Jackson Hooker, noted artist and Director of Kew from 1841 until his death in 1865 and is comprised of all of the plates in their earliest states, including both plates of the Auriculas, as well as the Pitcher Plant andBog Plant plates. These facts coupled with the extraordinarily-high quality of engraving and coloring ranks this set as one of the finest examples of Thornton’s work in existence. We are pleased to offer this remarkable limited-edition folio of Thornton’s Temple of Flora in facsimile form.
Strictly limited to 500 numbered sets.
For pricing inquires, please contact the Audubon House at email@example.com