Historical botanical illustration of the day

The Temple of Flora, Robert Thornton, botanical illustrations, florilegium, Mrs Morgan's Florilegium, Natalie Waddell,

“Botanical illustrators have always had to create a balance between science and art. The purpose of botanical books, from the earliest printed herbals in the 15th century, was to allow plants to be easily identified,” according to the State Library of New South Wales’ online exhibition Botanica: illustrating the exotic.

The collection explores the history and tradition of published European botanical illustration and the British and French fascination for exotic Australian plants.

“Although many printed botanical plates are very beautiful, the artists were required to present the plants as accurately as possible, without any unnecessary adornment. Each part of the plant required for identification was usually depicted – including leaves, buds, flowers, fruits and seeds. Some examples of botanical works departed from this strict scientific notion of written description and sober, accurate plates. A particular genre was the florilegia – compilations of art, poetry and prose.

“Perhaps the most famous florilegium was Robert Thornton’s Temple of Flora. His wordy, overblown text and the use of poems and quotations from literature to describe each plant were aimed much more at the wealthy amateur flower fancier than at the scientific market. The plates produced for the book were unique in that Thornton set each flower in ‘scenery appropriate to the subject’, creating magnificent coloured plates of plants in highly stylised, romanticised settings.”

The book is stored within the library’s collection but some of the contents – including the above illustration – is offered via its website, along with a variety of other publications in the same tradition.

Blue Egyptian water-lily, Robert Thornton, Linnaeus, The Temple of Flora, sexual system, florilegium, Mrs Morgan's FlorilegiumThe Temple of Flora was the third and final part of a much larger work published by Thornton between 1799 and 1807 under the snappy title A New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus Von Linnaeus: comprehending an elucidation of the several parts of the fructification; a prize dissertation on the sexes of plants; a full explanation of the classes, and orders, of the sexual system; and The Temple of Flora, or Garden of Nature, being picturesque, botanical, coloured plates, of select plants, illustrative of the same, with descriptions.

The tome was a tribute to the celebrated Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), whose ‘sexual system’ remains the basis of taxonomy today, although this is gradually beginning to change.

The Temple of Flora was the most ambitious part of Thornton’s publication and he originally hoped to feature seventy illustrations from the artist Philip Reinagle. But the project ran into financial difficulties due to lack of public interest and only thirty-three colour prints were included in the final edition.

The one above top, called Cupid inspiring plants with Love, carries at the bottom a section of a poem written by Charlotte Lennox which appears in full in another illustration elsewhere in the book. In this picture, Flora, Aesculapius, Ceres, with Cupid, Honouring the Bust of Linnaeus, the cherub is seen engraving a statute of the great man. The poem reads:

An animated Nature owns my sway,
Earth, sea and air, my potent laws obey
And thou, divine Linnaeus, trac’d my reign
O’er trees and shrubs, and Flora’s beauteous train,
Proved them obedient to my soft control,
And gaily breathe an aromatic soul

It’s interesting that these lines were written by Lennox (1730-1804), who was best known for her book The Female Quixote, or The Adventures of Arabella – a popular subversion of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic that flipped the gender of the main protagonist. The book is often seen as an expression of female identity in a world governed by men.

According to some interpretations, the Linnaean system engendered a male-biased view of the world.

“Earlier botanists had tried to group plants by characteristics such as the colour of their flowers or the shape of their leaves, but Linnaeus decided to order plants numerically according to their reproductive organs,” writes Patricia Fara in Sex, Botany and Empire.

“Surprising though it might seem, it had been nearly the end of the 17th century before naturalists realised that plants reproduce sexually. Even though many plants are hermaphrodites, which carry both male and female parts, Linnaeus settle on this sexual dichotomy for organising the plant world.

“As his model for this supposedly objective system, Linnaeus turned to human relationships. The prejudice of Enlightenment Christian moralists are built right into the heart of this scientific plan for plants, which Linnaeus outlined by using romantic words like ‘bride’ and marriage’.

“In his anthropomorphic scheme, the most basic division is between male and female – exactly the same distinction as in the highly chauvinistic society of late 18th-century Europe. Linnaeus gave priority to male characteristics; in other words, he imposed the sexual discrimination that prevailed in the human world onto the plant kingdom. His first level of ordering depends on the number of male stamens, but only the sub-groups are determined by the number of female pistils.

“From the dominant position enjoyed by Linnaeus and his male contemporaries, this way of dividing the plant kingdom carried a huge advantage: it made his arbitrary organisation of plants appear as though it were natural, even God-given. Linnaeus had mapped human society onto the botanical world, but from then on men of science could argue the reverse.”

All this despite the fact The Temple of Flora describes botany as “an elegant pursuit for Ladies”.

The full version of A New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus Von Linnaeus can be accessed online at Botanicus, the Missouri Botanical Garden Library’s free portal to historic botanical literature. The images included here come from the New York Public Library and the second one is of Nymphaea caerulea, or Blue Egyptian water lily – one of the possible candidates for the lotus plant eaten by the mythical Lotophagi in Homer’s Odyssey.

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