In honor of Earth Day and spring’s arrival in Washington, we examine the fine botanical print by Dr. Robert John Thornton in today’s blog post, entitled Flora Dispensing Her Favours on the Earth. In this print, Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and the season of spring, floats among the clouds, sprinkling blossoms from her hands onto the countryside below. Published in Thornton’s “The Temple of Flora”, arguably one of the most famous florilegium of all time, Flora Dispensing her Favours on the Earth is a gorgeous aquatint and stipple engraving, printed in color and then finished by hand.
Thornton(1768-1837) grew up in an age where artists, explorers, and botanists were collaborating under royal benefaction to describe, illustrate, and celebrate newly discovered botanical wonders. Plant collectors were sent with explorers of the South Seas,China, and the West Indies to bring back and classify exotic plants. After inheriting his family wealth,Thornton set out to publish a patriotic work celebrating the artistic superiority of the British over the French, while exalting the “philosophy of Botany”, including the Linnaean system of botanical classification. Not an artist himself, Thornton hired some of the most skilled British artists available at the time and began his publishing endeavor. Originally planning to feature over 90 plates of botanical prints in a three-part publication titled “A New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus von Linnaeus,” the full collection was never completed, as Thornton ran into many social and financial roadblocks.
Between 1789 and 1807, only a total of thirty-three expertly colored plates were engraved, colored, and stippled. In 1807, Thornton continued his great, if not fiscally irresponsible, undertaking and opened a gallery, but found diminishing interest in floral and botanical prints. Desperate to continue funding his work, Thornton applied for and was granted permission by Parliament to hold a lottery—with the grand prize-winning the entire contents of his botanical print gallery. The lottery failed and Thornton died, financially ruined by his dream.
Nevertheless, Thornton’s prints offer some the most exquisite and lavishly colored and engraved botanical prints to date. The collection of 33 plates and additional writings make up Part III of the “A New Illustration” publication, a folio entitled “Temple of Flora.” Not noted for their scientific accuracy, the prints and “Temple of Flora” writings are celebrated for their fanciful backgrounds, allegorical and symbolic tendencies, and nods to classical poetry.