6 August 2020

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The Graham Watson Collection in Emmanuel Library includes a copy of Robert Thornton’s Temple of Flora (1799-1807), the most stunningly sumptuous achievement of botanical illustration, which, however, proved personally ruinous for Thornton.

Thornton (1768-1837) studied at Cambridge and was inspired by the teaching of John Martyn, Professor of Botany, and by the work of the Swedish scientist Carl von Linnaeus (1707-78), who had formalized the system of binomial nomenclature for living things (the first part being the name of the genus, and the second the name of the species within the genus – thus, ‘homo sapiens’). The deaths of his parents and elder brother left Thornton with a considerable fortune, which he devoted to publishing his New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carl von Linnaeus. The first two parts were expositions of the sex of plants, but the third, The Temple of Flora, was to have a lavish series of plates depicting flowers. Each plate is accompanied by descriptions in suitably flowery prose, selections of flower-poetry, accounts of flower lore and symbolism, and other information.

In each plate the flower is depicted against a background of scenery designed to represent its habitat, whether that be Egypt with distant pyramids, the Cape of Good Hope, or a Dutch landscape with windmills behind an image of tulips. As Thornton put it, ‘each scenery is appropriated to its subject’. So of the auricula he remarks: ‘Being a native of the Alps, hence, in our Picture, it is seated near a chain of tremendous mountains’. Or of Cactus grandiflorens, ‘Thus, in the night-blowing Cereus you have the moon playing on the dimpled water, and the turret clock points XII, the hour at night when this flower is in its full expanse’. And so a very English-looking church tower with clockface, and with some fashionably Picturesque decay, is depicted behind this most exotic and exuberant Jamaican plant. Inevitably, Thornton’s book is now valued not for what he hoped was its scientific worth but as testimony to a Romantic vision of nature, landscape and flowers. 


Although Thornton originally envisaged over 70 illustrations, 31 were produced, engraved in aquatint, stipple and line engraving by Thomas Medland. The impressions were printed in colour but finished by hand, and because most of the plates were altered and added to during production, each plate can be a different ‘state’ of that particular image, and each copy of the book is distinct. Graham Watson purchased his copy at the sale of the library of the Society of Herbalists, and his notes record several Sotheby’s experts assuring him that the copy now in Emmanuel was the finest they had ever seen. The plates were issued to subscribers in parts over the years 1799-1807 and published in book form in 1807. It is an ‘elephant folio’ of enormous size (55 x 44 cms). But subscriptions were always disappointing. After long years of war with revolutionary France, high taxation to finance that war, and generally hard times, it was scarcely the moment for marketing such a luxurious book. To raise funds to rescue the scheme – which he saw as a national undertaking and dedicated to Queen Charlotte, herself a botany enthusiast – Thornton was allowed by Parliament in 1811 to hold a public lottery, with the original paintings for the plates as first prize, and various plates as other prizes. But the lottery failed to sell sufficient tickets, and at the time of his death Thornton was destitute.

Barry Windeatt (Keeper of Rare Books)

Images by Helen Carron (College Librarian)

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