The Temple of Flora

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The Quadrangular Passion-Flower by Peter Henderson, 1802
The Quadrangular Passion-Flower by Peter Henderson, 1802© 2008 Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis

In 1799, Robert John Thornton, a medically trained doctor and devoted botanist, began the production of The Temple of Flora – a volume of large-format engravings of beautiful, coloured floral portraits...

In 1799, Robert John Thornton, a medically trained doctor and devoted botanist, began the production of The Temple of Flora – a volume of large-format engravings of beautiful, coloured floral portraits. The work was intended as an homage to the great Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus, a man revered by Thornton for his revolutionary new system of classification, established a few decades prior. Thornton spared no expense in creating the plates, employing the most celebrated flower painters of the age to portray the flowers in immaculate detail. The monumental presence of the plants and their dramatic landscape backgrounds are also unique and fascinating reflections of the Romantic era within the realm of botanical illustration, a fact that rendered the original plates hugely valuable.

Very few complete editions of The Temple of Flora exist today, but now a newly published, complete reprint by Taschen – accompanied by the history of the work's origin and the life of its author – bring these stunning illustrations to the wider audience they deserve. Here, we present a selection of the plates, accompanied by enlightening facts about the flowers they depict – taken from the book, by its author Werner Dressendörfer.

"This vigorous climber is striking owing to the size of its flowers, which can reach a diameter of nearly 4 3/4 inches, and its leaves, which can grow to the impressive length of nearly 10 inches. It is therefore no wonder that the fruits attain a length of nearly 12 inches. With a savoury, sweet-sour taste, the flesh of its fruits can also be made into juice."

"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."

"The German word for carnation, Nelke, refers to the long-known spice Gewüznelke, or "clove", whose fragrance was thought to resemble the carnation's. The supposed aphrodisiacal properties of the clove were likewise ascribed to the carnation, which thus became a symbol of love."

"The unusual ability of the plant to close its small, feathery double leaves in a fraction of a second when touched caused a veritable sensation [when it was brought to England from Virginia in 1637]: animals and humans might well move with such speed, but no one had assumed it was possible for a plant to do so. The English name "sensitive plant" describes this characteristic."

"Roses in bloom have enjoyed great popularity throughout the ages. However, the thorny beauty was particularly esteemed in antiquity and the Middle Ages, when new vareties were created through the intense cultivation of the few wild types that were indigenous to Europe and the near East."

"The shoots of this decorative plant can reach a height of approximately 10 feet and emerge from the creeping roots. The deep green leaves can grow to a length of nearly 2 feet. Striking are the flowers' contrasting colours of white and red, as well as their striped yellow "lips", which emit a sweet, pleasant scent."

"The shape and size of its blossom ensure even today that this Mediterranean plant, known since antiquity, is widely admired. In late spring, however, when the flower is fully open, the joy of many flower aficionados is somewhat dampened, for the blossoms give off an intense odour of decay to draw carrion flies to pollinate it."

The Temple of Flora is published by Taschen and is available now.

Text by Daisy Woodward