Robert Thornton. The Temple of Flora: or, Garden of Nature, being Picturesque Botanical Plates of the New Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnaeus. London: 1799.  Gift of Ethelinda Schaefer Castle ’08.






Temple of Flora is the third volume of A New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus von Linnaeus, published between 1797 and 1807. Its author, Robert Thornton (1768-1837) was inspired by the work of the Swedish botanist Linnaeus to produce a book combining art and science in a way that would be pleasing for the general public, honor the botanical work of Linnaeus, and celebrate the artistic superiority of Great Britain. The first two volumes are concerned with the sexual system of classification. The third volume, however, is the most renowned section. It combines folio-size botanical plates with poetry from some of the most famous poets of Thornton’s time, including Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. The images are not by Thornton himself, but are the work of some of the best artists and engravers of the time.   

Despite the artistic and literary talent celebrated in the Temple of Flora, its publication coincided with a decrease in public interest in botanical books. In 1803 Thornton opened a gallery in London where he exhibited the original paintings upon which the book’s prints were based and sold catalogs. His goal was to increase public interest in the botanical images, but this attempt largely failed. He made a desperate attempt to save himself from financial ruin by organizing a public lottery in 1811. Tickets were sold for two guineas each, with the first prize being the original paintings from Temple of Flora. The lottery was unsuccessful, and Thornton lost the entirety of his fortune in the production of his life’s work. A resurgence of interest in botanical books meant that collectors of a later generation appreciated the combination of art and science presented in the Temple of Flora – but this renaissance of interest came too late for Thornton, who died penniless.


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