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. Having trained as a medical practitioner, Thornton pursued his passion for botany when he inherited his family fortune with an aim to produce a British work that would 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 with each plate dated individually. Prints were issued in different combinations according to the specific requirements of individual customers whilst each plate was produced through a different mixed-method of engraving processes – aquatint, mezzotint, stipple and line engraving.
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.
Below are a few examples from this collection. Please click on an image to see it in high-resolution with details of the work itself. For a full list of original antique engravings, please do contact us.
Orchid: Tankerville’s or China Limodorum set in a romanticised English landscape alluding to Lady Tankerville, a well known collector of exotic plants,
Tulips: La Triomphe, Louis XVI, Duchess of Devonshire, General Washington, Earl Spencer, La Majestieuse and Gloria Mundi set in a romanticised Dutch landscape complete with windmill.
Roses: Damask Rose, Unique Blanche, Sulpher Rose, White & Moss Rose, Dog Rose, Cabbage Rose, Yellow Rose, Variegate Rose. With pair of birds, nest of hatchlings, dragonfly and tower.
Lily:The Superb Lily, also known as the Turk’s Cap, set in a romanticised North American landscape.
Passion Flower:The Blue Passion Flower climbing a pillar. Native to Peru and Brazil, it was introduced to Europe in 1699 where it took to cooler climes.
White Lily with yellow margined leaves and classical temple alluding to it being cherised by the Ancient Greeks and later the Romans.
Aloe: Agave or American Aloe. Aloes are natives of the Old World whilst agaves are from the New. Thornton subsequently corrected his mistake.
Queen Flower (Bird of Paradise):Set in a romanticized landscape. Native to South Africa, it was brought to the Royal Botanic Gardens in the 1780s.
The Nodding Remealmia. Native to China and Japan.
Carnations: Group set in a romanticised landscape with Norman ruins. It was suggested that carnations, which were brought to Rome from Spain by Emperor Augustus, made their way from France to England via the stone the Normans used to build their castles.
The Blue Egyptian Water Lily set in a romanticised landscape with Aboukir and the Nile, alluding to the recent victory of Nelson over Napoleon.
Snowdrop: With yellow and purple crocuses set in a wintry English landscape.
The Sacred Egyptian Bean (Lotus). Revered as the Sacred Lotus of the East, it no longer grows in Egypt.
Flora Dispensing Her Favours on the Earth. 1812
The Superb Lily, also known as the Turk’s Cap, set in a romanticised mountainous landscape alluding to its North American origins.
Snowdrop:The snowdrop with crocuses in a wintery English landscape.