Sex, science & sumptuous flowers in Dr. Robert John Thornton’s 1807 epic, A New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus von Linnaeus: The Temple of Flora.
Exotic flora from foreign climes, their genitalia turned provocatively, suggestively toward the viewer, Dr. Robert John Thornton’s romantic floral opus, A New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus von Linnaeus; Part III, Temple of Flora, was very sexy science. Sumptuous flower porn at the turn of the 18th century.
The making of Temple of Flora, is inextricably entwined with repressed female sexuality, the history of botany, 18th century exploration of unknown continents, and a population fascinated with freshly-discovered exotic plant species brought back to Europe. A passion for discovery was at the forefront of the collaborative achievements of enlightened scientists, artists and explorers and their patrons. As explorers traveled the globe, interest in collecting new species of plants increased. This heightened a new-found excitement surrounding all things botanical. Dr. Thornton came of age during this time of artists and botanists working together under royal patronage to describe, illustrate and celebrate newly discovered botanical wonders. Thornton was challenged to demonstrate Britain’s artistic superiority in this field.
He chose to do this via a beautiful mixture of flowers. Flowers and that magic ingredient – sex.
Modern botany began with the sexual system of plant classification devised by the Swede Carl Linnaeus. Born in 1707, Linnaeus was introduced to botanical classification while training as a doctor. At that time, botany was taught alongside physiology as part of medical education. Linnaeus was drawn to the study of new plant classification systems and went on to devote himself to the subject. It was his system of binomial nomenclature that expanded interest in the science of botany and first inspired Dr. Thornton’s “grand concept.” For centuries the study of flowers and the cultivation of gardens were deemed to be safe pursuits for genteel young ladies – providing that is, that they didn’t aspire to professional botany. The sexual behaviour of animals, by contrast, was all too likely to provoke questions that were deemed improper. Carl Linnaeus’ sexual system for the classification of plants, based on stamens and pistils and expressed in overtly sexual terms, changed all that. Linnaeus played a key role in founding what can be described as “Romantic Science”, in which detailed analysis is allied to fervent evocations of nature in action and heralded a whole new era in 18th-century Europe of plants being spoken of in sexualised terms.
Unsurprisingly, religious and conservative organisations began to express alarm. Notably, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, published from the Calvinist redoubts of Edinburgh in 1768, railed against the “disgusting strokes of obscenity” with which Linnaeus had disfigured the picture of nature’s innocent beauties. Even the radical French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was an enthusiastic advocate of the new system, felt it prudent to warn Mme Delessert in his botanical letters that her young daughter should only be inducted into the secrets of stamens, pistils, and such-like “by degrees, no more than is suitable to her age and sex”.
In England, botany was all the rage. Frederick, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of George II lived at Kew. Passionate about science, exotic plants and landscaping, John Stuart, the Earl of Bute, was an avid botanist who guided Frederick’s interests. Stuart & Frederick shared ambitious plans for “his contrivances, designs for improvements in his Gardens”, but Frederick died in 1751 before realizing his plans for building a Great Stove hothouse in his huge gardens. Stuart, however, remained friendly with Frederick’s widow, Princess Augusta, and mentored her son, the future King George III. In 1759, Stuart persuaded Augusta to set aside nine acres of her garden, thereby founding the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
King George III was a keen exotic plant fancier too. In the aftermath of Captain James Cook’s first voyage in the South Seas, he dispatched numberous plant collectors overseas. During the 1790s, Captain Bligh, on a mission following the mutiny on the Bounty, brought massive amounts of plants back to England from the West Indies and from the Far East, Chinese roses were brought to Europe and George III fostered Kew Botanic Garden’s growth. By 1768 more than 3,400 species were growing there.
This Royal patronage fostered a surge in demand for botanical illustration and Linnaeus’ contraversial sexual classification system added a new frisson into the mix. It was this sex & botany combo that our man Thornton cleverly recognised & sought to exploit.
Thornton’s Temple of Flora has become perhaps the single most famous of all florilegia. Thornton was not primarily an artist. He was however, the visionary and driving force behind The Temple of Flora’s creation. To produce it, he employed a coterie of the finest British artists and engravers of his day, primarily Robert Medland and Philip Rienagle. Born in 1768, the year his father died, Thornton developed an avid interest in nature early in his formal studies. He kept a small garden and caught his own specimens for an aviary. Initially, he was intended for a life in the church, but after listening to botanical lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge, he chose a career in medicine. Upon the early death of his brother, and three years later the death of his mother, Dr. Thornton inherited his family’s fortune.
Late in life, Thornton wrote that the idea for his great undertaking was conceived in 1791. Planning for A New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus von Linnaeus began years later, in 1797. It was meant to be a patriotic work celebrating the artistic superiority of the British over the French while glorifying the “Philosophy of Botany” and the Linnaean sexual classification system. The work was to contain three parts: Part I was to be on the sex of plants, as stated by Linnaeus in 1759; Part II on the sexual system of classification; and Part III, entitled Temple of Flora, would comprise “picturesque botanical plates” depicting the system. On May 1, 1798, Tulips and The Aloe, were the first plates engraved by Medland from paintings by Reinagle. Between 1798 and 1807 a total of thirty-three extraordinarily evocative colored plates were engraved in aquatint, stipple and line from original paintings by noted British artists. Originally, Thornton intended to issue 70 ‘folio’ size colour plates.
In 1803, Thornton opened a gallery in London. There he exhibited the original Temple of Flora paintings and sold catalogs. His aim was to publicize the folio of engravings as it was being published and released. He recieved terrible reviews. In 1808, the noted explorer and the first unofficial director of Kew, Sir Joseph Banks, wrote, “I cannot say that Botany continues to be as fashionable as it used to be.” Thornton was financially ruined by setbacks brought on by war and changing tastes. These proved to be a temporary setback, and his great work went on to become a “lasting heirloom for the British nation.”
Thornton should have quit while he was ahead. Desperate to continue funding his floral/sex work, Thornton now embarked on his wildest scheme. He applied for and was granted permission by Parliament to hold a fantastic lottery. As prizes he produced a quarto, or miniature, edition of The Temple of Flora. First prize was to be the entire contents of the gallery. The lottery failed to attract takers and Thornton died destitute, financially ruined by his flowery dreams.
Sources: Article: “Sex and Science in Robert Thornton’s Temple of Flora“, Dr, Martin Kemp, Professor Emeritus of the History of Art; Honorary Fellow, Trinity College, Oxford, The Audubon House Gallery of Natural History website, Wikepedia & the Bio Diversity Heritage Library.
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