Thornton’s Temple of Flora

by sarahkburke

The Narrow-leaved Kalmia

Robert John Thornton, New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus. London: T. Bensley, 1798-1807. [HOLLIS]

Dr. Robert John Thornton (1768?-1837) executed his ambitious New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus between 1799 and 1810.  The images here are from the book’s third, most famous section, The Temple of Flora.  This florilegium, or treatise on flowers, is most celebrated for its extraordinary illustrations.  The work is also a florilegium in the word’s other sense, inasmuch as it includes gathered information, as chapters, asides and footnotes, on contemporary events, natural history, mythology, and medicine.

The Pontic Rhododendron

Published in parts, with multiple editions and issues, the New Illustration presents a thorny prospect for bibliographic description.  From copy to copy, the contents are combined in different orders and given sections may or may not be present.  Plates were altered over the decades of the book’s completion.  Add to this the tradition of removing images for individual sale and the lengthy title of the complete work (New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus: comprehending an elucidation of the several parts of the fructification: a prize dissertation on the sexes of plants: a full explanation of the classes, and orders, of the sexual system: and The temple of flora, or, Garden of nature, being picturesque, botanical, coloured plates, of select plants, illustrative of the same, with descriptions), and even the most enthusiastic bibliophile may back slowly towards the exit.

The Superb Lily

Thornton bankrupted himself on this project, a poetic and artistic celebration of the sexual system of plant reproduction proposed by Linnaeus earlier in the 18th century.  He employed prominent artists such as Philip Reinagle, Peter Henderson, and Abraham Pether to create paintings for the plates, with Thornton himself contributing a painting of roses.  The plates were created by similarly distinguished firms (Ward, Earlam, and Dunkarton for the mezzotints and Stadler and Sutherland for the aquatints) and often finished by hand.  Thornton described the illustrations as “picturesque,” with each plant depicted in a version of its natural setting, and he bemoaned the limits of illustrations, which “fall short in trying to represent these ravishing beauties of the vegetable world!” (from his text on tulips).


But the work was under-subscribed due, according to Thornton, to war taxes which kept collectors from buying books.  The original paintings for the Temple of Flora, as well as bound books and loose plates were sold in a lottery in 1811, a tragic but fittingly romantic end for such an ambitious endeavor.

The Night-Blooming Cereus

In Harvard’s library catalog, a researcher will find two records for New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus at Dumbarton Oaks, but only one of these copies has the lavishly-illustrated Temple of Flora section. There is an interesting story behind the arrival of this copy at Dumbarton Oaks.

The antiquarian book dealership Heywood Hill sent this volume on approval in 1951.  At this time Mildred Bliss already owned a later edition—perhaps the quarto edition—of the book.  It was not of the same high quality as the earlier edition sent on approval, but she thought that it would suffice for researchers.  She planned to send the earlier edition back to the dealer, but it seems she was not in a great hurry to do so: in a letter Heywood Hill requests its return since she had held onto it for so long.  A follow-up letter from a Dumbarton Oaks Librarian, dated 28 January 1952, laments: “The beautiful copy of Thornton is not on its way back to you as yet…Mrs. Bliss is rather melancholy at the thought if its leaving Dumbarton Oaks.”  It seems she had formed an attachment to this particular volume with its beautiful illustrations.  This is in no way surprising; although her collection officially focused on landscape design and horticulture, Mildred Bliss regularly acquired prints, drawings, and paintings of flowers and flower arrangements.

In the end, Heywood Hill and Mrs. Bliss worked out a deal.  Mrs. Bliss sent the later edition to Heywood Hill and paid the balance in value between the two editions.  She kept the earlier, better edition, and it remains in the Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection today.



With thanks to Garden and Landscape Fellow Miranda Mollendorf, at work on a dissertation on Thornton, who has given us new insight into this fascinating book.