New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus... and the Temple of Flora
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 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.
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 any given section may or may not be present. Plates were altered over the decades of the book’s completion.
Thornton bankrupted himself on this project, a poetic and artistic celebration of the sexual system of plant reproduction proposed by Linnaeus earlier in the eighteenth century. Thornton employed prominent artists such as Philipp Reinagle, Peter Henderson, and Abraham Pether to create paintings for the plates, and Thornton himself contributed a painting of roses. The plates were engraved 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.
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