dr Robert John Thornton

1768 – 1837

Physician, botanist, visionary, and creator of one of the world's finest botanical publications

The English physician and botanical writer Robert John Thornton is best known for his publication New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus.

Although this work is considered by botanists to be one of the greatest ever flower books, Thornton’s bad fortune and poor decisions, meant he died destitute, never achieving his grand ambitions.

While it may have been an unhappy ending for Thornton, he has left us a great gift with what has been described as one of the loveliest books in the world.

Thornton was born in 1768, the same year in which his father died. With a keen interest in nature, Thornton used his own small garden as the starting point for his studies, collecting specimens for an aviary.

As a child Thornton was educated by the Reverend Mr Taylor, vicar of Kensington and his schooling prepared him for a career in the church. However, while later studying at Trinity College in Cambridge, Thornton was inspired by the lectures of English botanist Thomas Martyn and switched to study medicine.

Following the deaths of both his brother and his mother, Thornton inherited the family fortune and began travelling. To gain further professional experience, he visited Paris, Holland, Germany, Edinburgh and Dublin.

In 1797, Thornton began practicing medicine in London and was the physician to the Marylebone dispensary for four years. He also spent time working at Guy’s Hospital in London where he became the lecturer of medical botany and is reported to have introduced the use of digitalis (foxglove) to treat scarlet fever.

It was also in 1797 that Thornton began his great work New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus. Created as result of the 18th century fascination for exploration and discovery, it was intended to showcase the talents of British artists while celebrating the Linnean system of classification, developed by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus.

Often referred to as the ‘father of modern taxonomy’, Carl Linnaeus formalized the modern system of naming organisms. During the mid-1700s, Linnaeus made several journeys to collect and classify animals, plants and minerals. In particular Linnaeus studied the sexual reproduction of plants and in 1729 wrote a thesis on the subject.

In New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus, Thornton created a collection of evocative illustrations, reflecting Linnaeus’s system of classification.

While some 18th century scholars were horrified by Linnaeus’s association between reproduction and botany, Thornton was keen to depict Linnaeus’s systems in a scientific manner. However, it’s evident in his work that Thornton also relished the suggestive phallic and sapphic shapes found in so many plant specimens.

For New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus, Thornton originally planned to issue 70 folio size color plates. In 1803, he opened a gallery in London where he exhibited his paintings and sold catalogs to gain publicity which he hoped would lead to subscriptions for his work.

Unfortunately for Thornton, the popularity of botany began to wane in the early 19th century. Thornton also faced a series of financial setbacks and without a patron to fund his project, he needed to find the money himself.

In 1811, Thornton was granted permission by parliament to organize a lottery to raise the funds he desperately needed. The first prize was a collection of original pictures, valued at over £5,000. But despite his entrepreneurial ambitions, the lottery was unsuccessful and Thornton died destitute in 1837, leaving his son and daughter in financial ruin. 

While it may have been an unhappy ending for Thornton, he has left us a great gift with what is described by Alan Thomas, author of Great Books and Book Collecting as “one of the loveliest books in the world”.

Temple of Flora is the third part of Thornton’s New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus. His intention was that this would comprise ‘picturesque botanical plates’ depicting the sexual system of classification.

As Thornton was not himself an accomplished artist, he employed a selection of the best British artists and engravers available to bring his vision to life, including Philip Reinagle, Sydenham Edwards and Peter Henderson.

Thornton arranged the compositions himself, placing the flowers in settings to reflect their exotic origins. Several etching and printing techniques were used to create the engravings including mezzotint, aquatint, and line engraving.

In Temple of Flora, Thornton intended to include 70 large plates showing exotic plant species in their native environments displayed in accordance with Linnaeus’s classifications system.  

The financial difficulties that Thornton faced made it impossible for him to keep up a regular production schedule and so plates were produced on an irregular basis. In total, 33 plates were produced between 1798 and 1807.

As well as detailed illustrations of plant species, Temple of Flora included a more whimsical illustration Cupid Inspiring Plants with Love. Meanwhile other plates show a darker side to the natural world such as the depiction of the Dragon Arum.

Thornton’s accompanying text is dramatic and evocative: “SHE comes peeping from her purple crest with mischief fraught: from her green covert projects a horrid spear of darkest jet, which she brandishes aloft: issuing from her nostrils flies a noisome vapour, infecting the ambient air: her hundred arms are interspersed with white, as in the garments of the inquisition; and on her swollen trunk are observed the speckles of a mighty dragon; her sex is strangely intermingled with the opposite ! confusion dire ! -all framed for horror; or kind to warn the traveller that her fruits are poison-berries, grateful to the sight but fatal to the taste; such is the plan of PROVIDENCE, and such HER wise resolves.”

Own your own Thornton giclée prints

Taken from the original copies held in the libraries of Teylers Museum in the Netherlands, our collection contains 30 color plates from Temple of Flora – the third part of Thornton’s masterpiece New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus.

True to the originals in every detail, this collection gives you an authentic facsimile which matches the size, colors and detail of Thornton’s original illustrations.

Using the highest possible resolution, age-resistant white etching paper and archival ink, our prints are designed to resist fading for 100 years, giving you a lifetime of enjoyment from this wonderful collection.

Solander Box

When investing in the complete Thornton set, you can also choose our beautiful Solander box as the ideal place to store your collection.

This high-quality box is designed especially for keeping your prints safe and in perfect condition – yet you can still easily look at them whenever you wish. 

You will also receive our Certificate of Authenticity. This shows all the details of your artwork and gives you valuable certification if you ever wish to sell or bequeath your collection in the future.