Saturday 14 December 2013

The Temple of Flora

“Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”


This week I found a bit of heaven, right here in Dublin, at the Chester Beatty Library.
The Night-blowing Cereus, Selenicereus grandiflorus

Sir Alfred Chester Beatty (1875-1968) was a wealthy Irish-American who was passionate about collecting rare and beautiful objects. His dream was
"To show in one place, every material on which man has communicated with man, in all parts of the world and through all periods of time."

True to his word, he amassed the most incredible collection of rare books, manuscripts, prints, paintings and Oriental art in his lifetime, which he bequeathed to the Irish State. To house the collection, a small museum was built on the grounds of Dublin Castle.
The collection is so enormous that only a fraction of the artwork can be displayed at any given time, with the remainder being stored in the museum’s archives. Amongst those hidden treasures, are some rare and extremely beautiful botanical art books.

So this week, having been granted the special permission needed, I found myself being taken into an elegant room with an ornately carved ceiling and walls lined with mahogany bookcases. Carefully laid out on the table were the botanical treasures that I sought, The Temple of Flora, by Robert Thornton, and The Botanist’s Repository, by Henry Charles Andrews. A magnifying glass, book snakes and a small reading lamp were conveniently placed nearby. “Take your time” said the Librarian with a smile. Heaven!

Protea longlifolia in The Botanist's repository, by Henry Charles

Although both books are incredibly beautiful and date from the same period, it was The Temple of Flora that really caught my attention, because there is only one word to describe it… magnificent. I had seen a copy before at the Botanic Gardens in Dublin, but that was just a cursory peek. I was eager to spend more time poring over the illustrations and to learn more about the fascinating story behind the book.

The Snowdrop and The Crocus (Abraham Pether)
In 1797, a wealthy doctor and botany enthusiast named Robert John Thornton (1768-1837) decided to commission the most extravagant and sumptuous botanical publication ever produced. Inspired by the writings of Linnaeus, his florilegium was to explore the “philosophical principles of botany’, and would thrust Britain into the forefront of scientific and artistic achievements. The publication was titled The New Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnaeus and was dedicated to Queen Charlotte. It was made up of three parts, the third one being The Temple of Flora.
To create his masterpiece, he engaged the finest artists and engravers of the time- Philip Reinagle, (known for his portraits and animal paintings), Peter Charles Henderson (a miniaturist), Abraham Pethers (famous for his moonlit landscapes) and Sydenham Edwards. Thornton himself painted the Roses with nightingales.

A Group of Tulips (Philip Reinagle)

"As each individual Tulip shews a marked Variety, so when grouped together, you have a striking display of the remarkable power of the beneficient CREATOR,  who has placed these beautiful objects before us, for our recreation , and admiration! How much does the imitative power of painting fall short of trying to represent these ravishing beauties of the vegetable world."
 Thornton instructed the artists to paint the plants not in the traditional manner against a plain background, but to place them in their natural settings, or rather what they imagined the landscape to be! The prints were made in the basic colours, and the final image reworked with watercolour washes. No two copies were the same and in fact, I noticed huge differences between the book in the Library and the images available online. A team of the top engravers was also employed using the latest techniques in mezzotint and aquatint.

Strelitzia reginae or The Queen Plant (Reinagle)
Accompanying the 28 beautiful colour plates were various descriptions, histories and poetic odes about the flowers featured. It was all very flamboyant, bordering on the ridiculous at times, but delightfully evocative of the pomp and grandeur of the time. I couldn’t help but giggle at some of the descriptions. For example, when he discusses the Winged Passion-Flower, or Passiflora alata, he says that Nature has “often puzzled shallow philosophers”, and goes on to explain that the “three small serrated spear-shaped leaves” found at the base of the flower “afford abundant proof that use is not always the plan of Nature, but that she indulges sometimes in ornament. Thus we have nipples which answer no other end but as a correspondence with our better halves.”
 I’m not sure if humour was his intention but I bet that comment raised a few eyebrows!
The Winged Passion-Flower, or Passiflora alata (Henderson)

The Dragon Arum, Dracunculus vulgaris, one of my favourite illustrations, is given an equally imaginative introduction
“This extremely foetid poisonous plant will not admit of sober description. Let us therefore personify it. 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 … “.  
The painting is quite dramatic, “the clouds are disturbed” and in the distance a volcano erupts.
Dragon Arum or  Dracunculus vulgaris
The most famous of all the illustrations has to be TheNight-blowing Cereus. It is, even after 200 years, quite stunning. Set against a beautiful moonlit landscape, this gorgeous cactus flower glows with a luminous beauty. The cactus was painted by Reinagle and the background was painted by Pethers who was so well known for his nocturnal landscapes that he had the sobriquet of ‘Moonlight Pethers’.  I noticed that there were two versions of this painting. In the first, the background is of an English country churchyard, or as Thornton describes it
 “ Each scenery is appropriated to the subject. Thus in the night-blowing Cereus (Selenicereus grandiflorus) you have the moon playing on the dimpled water, and the turret-clock points XII, the hour at which this flower is in it’s full expanse.” 
However it was probably pointed out to Thornton that this cactus is highly unlikely to bloom in the English countryside, and so a second painting, equally beautiful but with a more appropriate background was commissioned. Compare the image below to the image at the top of this page.
Night-blowing Cereus, or Cactus grandiflorus (Reinagle)
"The scientific name [for this flower] Selenicereus literally means "lunar wax candle". It is likened to the moon because it blossoms in the night and with candles because of its candle-like long stem... This seems unnatural to us, as we are used to blossoms opening when exposed to the sun. But because the queen of the night is pollinated by nocturnal animals, in particular bats, it had to adapt its behaviour to the circumstances, and offer the glory of its blossoms to the night."

Thornton’s passion for the whole project leaps out from every page. Words pour out from him in a curious mix of botany, mythology, history and poetry. He dedicates pages to detailed descriptions of battles and to Persian, Greek, Hindu and Egyptian mythology. He discusses “the needless and atrocious murder of the Duke D’Enghien by torchlight”, which was obviously the hot topic of the day, but perhaps not what you’d expect to find in a botanical book!

Mimosa grandiflora or Large Flowering Sensitive Plant (Reinagle)  I loved the little image of the Aboriginal man in the background looking in wonder at this tree. Thornton includes a little poem by Darwin, comparing the tree to the chaste Desdemona.
"Fill'd with nice sense the chaste Mimosa stands,
From each rude touch withdraws her timid hands:
Oft, as light clouds o'erpass the summer's glade
Alarm'd she trembles at the moving shade

Alas the whole project was doomed to failure. 
Despite the lavishness of the publication, it just didn’t sell, and Thornton soon found himself in dire financial straits. Perhaps it was because of the Napoleonic wars, which as Thornton laments “The once moderately rich very justly now complain that they are exhausted through taxes laid on them to pay armed men to diffuse rapine, fire and murder, over civilised EUROPE”.
Perhaps the book was just too expensive, too sumptuous and too indulgent. Desperate to continue with the project (he originally wanted 70 colour plates), he set up a gallery in London called "Dr. Thornton's Linnaean Gallery", but even that failed to recoup his losses.
In 1812, faced with bankruptcy, Thornton had The Temple of Flora set re-engraved on a small scale for a quarto edition, with some of the compositions slightly altered. An act of parliament was passed allowing him to set up a Royal Botanic Lottery with 20,000 tickets at two guineas each, using the smaller formatted edition used as prizes, as well as the original paintings. However the lottery failed to catch on and his debts grew.
Robert Thornton died in 1837, destitute and heartbroken, despite having created one of the most beautiful and famous of all florilegia.  You can see the whole book online here.
The Nodding Renealmia (Henderson)

I found the whole story deeply moving, particularly given the outstanding quality of the artwork. The other botanical art books on display were beautiful too, but really faded in comparison to this intriguing book. I liked the concept of painting a landscape behind the plant too, one that reflects the character of the plant. I felt that it had allowed the viewer to relate to the plant in a completely different way, and helped the viewer to engage with the subject. Sometimes I find botanical art a little too clinical and remote, so Thornton’s approach is definitely something that I would like to follow up with in my own art. I think I’ll skip the poetry though!

Who can paint like Nature?
Can Imagination boast,
Amid his gay creation, hues like these?
And can he mix them with that matchless skill
And lay them on so delicately fine
And make these varied marks so just and true,
That each shall tell the name denoting
It’s peculiar birth?


  1. What a wonderful day out Shevaun,great to see these paintings xx

  2. Wow--your descriptions and the photos really bring Beatty's book to life! I found the story behind it quite moving. Obviously he was passionate about botanical art and daring enough to break the rules a bit. I like those dramatic backgrounds too. They tell a story about each plant.

    1. Thanks Janene. The paintings were even better in real life! I just think that it's such a tragedy that it left Thornton destitute. He was certainly passionate about botany.

  3. What a great story Shevaun. I love the Chester Beatty Library- though I haven't visited in years and didn't even know it had moved to Dublin Castle. Poor old Thornton! What a time that must have been, when botany was at the forefront of scientific exploration (though The Temple of Flora illustrates the depths of human imagination (and passion) as it does science). The paintings are wonderful and I too love the inclusion of the backgrounds- harbingers of a more ecological approach to botanical illustration maybe. Thanks for posting this :)


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