Beautiful books and the doctor who went bankrupt to create one
"The twenty-eight illustrations in the Temple of Flora in its large format (about 24 × 18 inches) are the most overtly dramatic in the history of botany. Each plant is characterized assertively against an evocative background. The Night-blowing cereus from Jamaica, as drawn by Reinagle, is shown in a moonlit landscape of church and ‘dimpled’ river by Pether; . . .the Dragon arum displays the ‘confusion dire’ of its phallic sexual equipment against a stormy mountainscape. . ." (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)
Robert Thornton's father died before he was born. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1786 aged eighteen, but was drawn into medicine and attracted by botany, an exciting and flourishing study in his time. He attended lectures at Guy's Hospital medical school, and was graduated as MB at Cambridge in 1793.
In 1796 he was appointed lecturer on medical botany at Guy's and St Thomas's hospitals, and embarked "on a gigantic literary speculation which was to ruin him" financially.
Dr Thornton loved the beauty and order of plants. He saw them as a song of praise for God and an inspiration for peace. He believed that "the botanical diversity of the world, the result of the wide variety of geographical habitats, gave unequivocal support for the notion of free trade rather than military conquest and perpetual strife".
So he embarked on a great project to illustrate the sexual system of Linnaeus by creating a magnificent book illustrated by teams of master engravers and colourists and the full range of current printing techniques. He wreathed his romantic illustrations with scientific texts and poetry.
Viewed as a whole, Thornton's publications embrace, in a single if loosely organized system, many of the varied motivations in British science at the turn of the [19th] century: a respect for experiment; a search for systems of mathematical rigour; an awe at the power of life forces, particularly those of chemical and electrical nature; a rhapsodic delight in. . .nature in all its dramatic manifestations; a strong sense of national pride in the political and scientific achievements of Britain; a love of freedom in nature and society, as opposed to continental mores; an enthusiasm for the role of lavish, large-scale illustrations for the portrayal of truths of man and nature; and, above all, a keen awareness of the supreme power of the provident creator, designer of the ‘great chain of being. . .' (DNB).
Dr Thornton married and had two children. He published several other books, including Illustrations of the School Virgil. The illustrations were by William Blake. Like Blake, Dr Thornton died poor, but left us treasures.
In 2008 The Folio Society published a facsimile of ‘The most strikingly beautiful set of flower plates ever to be printed in England and one of the loveliest books in the world’ - Dr. Thornton's book.