The year 1799 witnessed the first installment of a work that has gone down in history as one of the most remarkable books of botanical plates ever published. Two centuries have passed since the publication of Robert John Thornton's "The Temple of Flora", but its charm remains unsullied today. Although trained as a medical doctor, Thornton (c. 1768-1837) passionately devoted himself to botany, a study that had only a few decades earlier established itself as a modern science through Carl Linnaeus's revolutionary new system of botanic classification based on the structure of blossoms. Thornton greatly honored the ingenious Swedish scientist and wished his own prodigious undertaking to serve as an ultimate monument to the great botanist.Today, Thorton's extremely diversified and at times long-winded texts may lack botanical significance, but the large-format plates with their allegorical depictions and stunning floral portraits number among supreme achievements of botanical illustration. Thornton engaged the most renowned flower painters of his age and spared no cost in the creation of this unique work.
His reckless enthusiasm, however, reduced his originally considerable fortune so drastically that, sanctioned by Parliament, Thornton had to organize a botanical lottery in order to bring his spectacular project to a provisional end. Surviving complete editions of the Temple number today among the great treasures of only a few libraries; meanwhile, the individual plates have become sought-after and extremely expensive collectors' items, whose particular allure lies in their unusual combination of at times exotic plant motifs with highly romantic background landscapes.More than any other floral painting, the bewitchingly illuminated blossoms of the "Queen Plant," posed before darkening ruins, expresses the late 18th century sentiment that in the following decades found its characteristic expression in European Romantic literature and painting. Including all the plates of the "Temple of Flora", this large-format volume represents a consummate edition of the work. Only a few original copies with a complete collection of plates are extant-and access to them is extremely limited.
Detailed close-ups underline the beauty and the artistic perfection of the prints, which were in the end usually colored and worked by hand. In addition to the botanical and cultural historical explanations of the individual plate illustrations, the volume narrates the history of the origin of the work and the life of its author.
Werner Dressendorfer, pharmaceutical historian and lecturer at the universities of Erlangen and Wurzburg, is currently conducting research into the history of healing plants from a socio-cultural viewpoint, with a focus on the symbolism of plants and their role in superstition. He is the author of a number of pharmaceutical publications and scientific papers on the Late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance.