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News: An Unexpected Treasure - Temple of Flora by Robert John Thornton


February 06, 2020

From the GCA’s Rare Book Collection

Little did Robert John Thornton (1768-1837) know, the book that caused him to lose his inherited fortune would now be one of the most treasured books in the GCA Rare Books Collection. The Temple of Flora, Part III of New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus Von Linnaeus, includes 30 stunning colored botanical illustrations of flowers. Used by physicians, pharmacists, botanical scientists, and gardeners, botanical illustrations of plant life captured the imagination of the western world during the 18th century. The GCA's Rare Book Collection is housed at the New York Botanical Garden’s Mertz Library.

Dr. Thornton, physician and botanical writer, had a grand vision to pay homage to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), the father of modern taxonomy. Prominent artists, such as Philip Reinagle, were selected to sketch the illustrations and hand-color prints. Renowned engravers, such as Thomas Medland, created the copper plates used for printing. The original ambitious plan to include 90 colored plates eventually resulted in only 30 due to insufficient funds. Most of the text was written by Thornton himself, but time and financial resources were not on his side.

Mark Catesby, an English naturalist and author, was already producing books introducing new plants to inquisitive English intelligentsia. Unfortunately, by the time Temple of Flora was published, Thornton’s plants selected for his volume, had already been introduced by Mark Catesby. The enormous personal investment in publishing and marketing the volume, led to Thornton’s financial demise.

Today, Thornton’s Temple of Flora is considered by many critics to be one of the greatest flower books ever. Thornton is known for beautifully depicting flowers in “epic and unusual settings” and inserting “various descriptions, histories, and poetic odes regarding the flowers featured.”

If a visit to the Mertz Library is not immediately possible, these fantastical engravings and their accompanying texts can be viewed online thanks to the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Thornton quotes Darwin’s poem to Mimosa Grandiflora: “Fill’d with nice sense the chaste Mimosa stands, from each rude touch withdraws her timid hands.

Cactus Grandiflorus or Night-Blooming Cereus “for its opening its beautiful flowers after sun-set. . .,” wrote Thornton in the accompanying text. Note the clock tower striking midnight.

A group of Auriculas “Linneaus makes the Auricula a species of Primula. . . Being a native of the Alps, hence, in our picture, it is seated near a chain of tremendous mountains. . .,” writes Thornton in his text of the illustration by Reinagle.

Top image caption: Writes Thornton of A Group of Tulips, “As each individual tulip shows a marked variety, so when grouped together, you have a striking display of the wonderful power of the beneficent CREATOR, who has placed these beautiful objects before us, for our recreation, and admiration!”


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