Arguably the greatest illustrated book on flowers is Thornton's Temple of Flora. Although a phenomenal failure, it has a distinctive style impossible to duplicate and foolhardy to imitate. So strong are the images that even today one's reaction is immediate and unyielding. Those who dislike them (disdain is more likely) cannot be persuaded otherwise. Those who like them do so with immense passion equal only to that of the great man, Dr. Robert John Thornton, who created them.
Thornton, coming from a well-to-do family, had all the advantages of an indulged childhood. He kept his own botanical garden and aviary, financed from his weekly allowance. Much to the chagrin of his grandmother, young Thornton spent more time in the pursuit of hawks, butterflies and insects than of his studies. He was sent to Cambridge with hopes of being ordained, but with a nod to his flirtation with science, he chose medicine. He fell into the good company of Dr. Thomas Beddoes, father of the poet Thomas Lovell Beddoes, and Dr. Erasmus Darwin, the first of the Darwins. How could he go wrong?
Surviving his father, mother and brother, Thornton took his inheritance and set upon creating "the national glorification of botany…the alliance of botany and the pleasing Arts of Painting and Engraving". Dedicated to Queen Charlotte, Thornton was quick to stress it as a "national undertaking". In an attempt to ride the popular wave of botanical works, Thornton created the New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus von Linnaeus; comprehending an illucidation of the several parts of the fructification, a prize dissertation 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. The title is as ambitious as the work. Known as The Temple of Flora, the flowery prose of the text was well suited to the grand drama of the illustrations. To some they appear sumptuous, grand, and romantic; to others they are vulgar, lurid and sentimental. But for everyone the bold images evoke an emotional response, from a clock tower striking midnight to lightning striking a mountain; a full moon over troubled waters to a temple over a placid lake; pyramids, pagodas and cupid -- did I mention that this was a scientific work on botany?
Hiring "esteemed" painters of his day, Thornton's approach was very painterly. He personally drew the illustration for "The Roses". A variety of roses create an arrangement complete with dragonfly, butterfly, nightingales and a charming nest of eggs. Oh yes, and the ever popular temple. The influence of the Dutch still life not withstanding, Thornton's flowers leap off the page like a modern day Georgia O'Keefe. Passionflowers overtake gothic columns, bog plants loom over a surreal landscape, and carnations challenge a threatening sky. A serpent lurks behind the Stapelia, the Aloe weeps heavy with dew, the Renealmia, looking spent as it nods to one side, spews its dew in droplets. A pristine white lily is juxtaposed with the darkness of tree lined murky waters and the dawn breaking behind a Grecian temple. And the Cereus, looking like something from "The Little Shop of Horrors", reaches it menacing tongue outward while the full moon peers from behind the shadowy trees illuminating the midnight striking of a clock tower. Love them or leave them. Although Thornton, who certainly loved them with unrestrained ardor, could not leave them…alone that is. He continually reworked the plates; add a leaf, drop a petal, less clouds, more sky, move a bird, cover a pond, diminish a sunset, lose those clock hands. Like a megalomaniac Hollywood director, Thornton had more takes than his budget could afford.
However, Thornton was wise to establish a connection with royalty. It is no coincidence that "Strelitza Reginae", Bird-of-Paradise to us peasants, was included--in two versions no less. Both "The Queen" and the "Queen Flower" (what's with those extra petals?) were a gesture to Queen Charlotte (remember the dedication?) who was its namesake, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Having spared no expense on the "splendid plates, splendid calligraphic title-pages, splendid typography, splendid expanses of Whatman's wove, fees for artists, fees for engravers", Thornton saw his fortunes dwindle. Could an Act of Parliament giving him permission hold a lottery save him? Thornton needed over 40,000 pounds. In 1811, this was a fortune. He marketed the event vigorously, promising to destroy the original plates, lecturing days before the event and even publishing quarto editions of the complete work (think Mini-Me) as prizes. In this version of his "Roses", he hatches the nightingale's eggs, giving us hungry little chicks. Charming. It was said to be win or ruin. We know the outcome. Thornton beggared himself in the making of what is today the rarest, most sought after, most complex example of the engravers art and the illustrator's whim. It is the greatest prize of collectors of fine flower books. And, yes, the most expensive.
References: Ronald King, The Temple of Flora London, 1981
Geoffrey Grigson, Thornton's Temple of Flora, London, 1972.
Gordon Dunthorne, Flower & Fruit Prints…., Washington, D.C., 1938.