Dr Robert John Thornton (1768-1837) was born into a world where recent events and personalities had aroused much interest in exotic plants and botanical illustration. Kew Botanical Gardens were opened in 1759 by Princess Augusta whose son, George III, was to be its greatest patron. Having trained as a medical practitioner, Thornton pursued his passion for botany when he inherited his family fortune.
The eighteenth-century saw the introduction to Europe of vast quantities of new and exotic plants from abroad. Encouraged by Royal patronage, competition throughout Europe to produce the finest illustrative works was extremely high. Thornton’s aim was therefore to produce a British work that would, “in point of Magnificence, exceed all the other works of a similar nature on the Continent, and be…a National Honour”.
The Temple of Flora was based on the ideas of Carl Linnaeus, whose Systema Natura (1735), drew frank analogies between the sexual behaviour of plants and human beings. Linnaeus’s theories were often greeted with disbelief and stringent censure. It is to Thornton’s lasting credit that he had the courage to produce a work of such importance against the odds of controversy. Around thirty plates were produced in total over a period between 1799 and 1807. Each plate is dated individually. Prints were issued in different combinations according to the specific requirements of individual customers. The plates were produced by a method known as “mixed method engraving”, in which the techniques of aquatint, mezzotint, stipple and line engraving combine on a single plate. The impressions taken from them were printed in colour and finished by hand.
Thornton had put every penny of his inheritance into the venture which, due to the continental war and changing taste, ended in financial disaster. In an attempt to extricate himself, Thornton obtained the permission of Parliament to organise a lottery, with twenty-thousand tickets at two guineas each and prizes valued at £77,000. A smaller edition of The Temple of Flora was produced as a lottery prize. The project did not succeed, and when Thornton died in 1837, his family was destitute.
Today, the Temple of Flora is generally held to be one of the finest illustrated botanical works ever produced and is a splendid testament to the passion of Robert Thornton.
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