Who was Robert Thornton?

Who was Robert John Thornton?

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.

Thornton began travelling through Europe

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.

New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus von Linnaeus

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.

The Temple of Flora

In New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus, Thornton created a collection of evocative illustrations, reflecting Linnaeus’s system of classification. The Temple of Flora is the third part of the New Illustration. 

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.

Exhibition in gallery in London

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.

"One of the loveliest books in the world"

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”.