Dark botanics: gothic forms in Thornton's Temple of flora

Susan Thomas, co-curator, Dark Imaginings: Gothic tales of wonder

The dark tendrils of the gothic permeated the eighteenth-century domain, unveiling its nightmarish preoccupations in disparate ways. In the worlds of science and nature, a gothic impulse infected the upper-class taste for plant exotica, and disquieted a public who were introduced to strange foreign species via the printed page.

On display in the Dark imaginings exhibition are two striking floral engravings which Dr Robert Thornton (1768–1837) commissioned for his elaborate three-volume botanical work A new illustration of the sexual system of Carolus Von Linnæus (1797–1807).[1] The mezzotints of the Night-Blowing Cereus (Plate 14) and Dragon Arum (Plate 22) in the final instalment, the Temple of flora, are startlingly original in their mode of depiction, and visually arresting even to the modern eye. Thornton’s handpicked artists were specifically charged with rendering the ‘spirit’ and ‘personality’ of each plant, each specimen to be placed in a setting appropriate to its character.[2]

Until the late 1700s it was the convention of botanical illustrators to frame their subjects against plain backgrounds to emphasise scientific structure, or in scenes situating plants in their natural environment. Each plate turn of the Temple of flora reveals a shift away from this sterile register; there is a deeper potency—darker, more visceral, more carnal. Unfamiliar forces are at play in which we see a Jamaican cactus flanked by a gothic clock tower, and a Mediterranean lily menaced by storm clouds, the brooding firmament ignited by lightning and an erupting volcano.

Here botanical art is echoing the use of fearful and dramatic settings by gothic artists and writers (like Salvator Rosa and Ann Radcliffe) to stir emotions, and stimulate the imagination towards the uneasy but wonderful limits of the sublime. As Kroger notes, Radcliffe (who was inspired by Rosa) uses ‘fierce-looking mountains, gloomy skies, and ominous forests in creating the dramatic structure in her novels. As the plot progresses and the heroine faces increasing danger and despair, the landscape will often change to reflect both the heroine's mood and the reader's increasing terror.’[3] Like the continental villains in gothic stories, in Thornton’s designs foreign plants are transplanted from the wild to a cultivated frontier, where they are used for heightened creative effect.

Plate 14 depicts the Night Blowing Cereus, a native of Jamaica and Cuba, which was in cultivation at the King’s Privy Garden, Hampton Court in 1689. The Latin name Selenicereus grandifloras, derives from the Greek word for moon (selene) and references the large spiky flowers which grow up to 30cm across and bloom once annually at night.[4]

The Night-blowing Cereus, Plate 14, Temple of Flora.

In this period not all botanical drawings were made from life, as actual specimens were unavailable or their blossoming was too fleeting to capture. Illustrators commonly drew inspiration from other sketches in their quest to capture the essence of the ‘archetypical’ plant, a practice which offered Thornton’s artists opportunities for infusing their own dramatic interpretations.

In the Temple of flora the Night Cereus has been positioned in the foreground of the illustration to emphasise its size, and the seductive but slightly hostile flower is made to appear proportionally larger and more monstrous—at its most vibrant and sensuous in the shadowy light.[5] The spectral bloom seems partially ensnared by its own serpent-like spiky stem and an entanglement of ivy and oak branches, the latter associated with dark forests and entrapment, and the tree with the ancient gods of thunder and lightning. These gothic overtones can be contrasted with the realism of a mid-century mezzotint of the same plant made by Johann Jakob Haid (1704–1767), after the original painting by botanical artist Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708–1770).

Johann Jakob Haid's Cereus gracilis scandens… after Georg Dionysius Ehret. Plantae selectae. Nuremberg, 1750-1773.

Plate 22 depicts the Dragon Arum (Dracunculus vulgaris, or little dragon), a spectacular Mediterranean lily. The image was issued in three states, the third of which is the most animated with the threatening mountain of the original transformed to a volcano, and the sky irradiated by yellow lightning, momentarily disrupting the scene. Thornton explains the charged setting: ‘the clouds are disturbed, and everything looks wild and sombre about the dragon Arum, a plant equally as poisonous as foetid’.[6]

Dragon Arum, Plate 22, Temple of flora

In the Temple of flora the physical shape of the plant is exploited to dramatise what Thornton referred to as the ’horror of its form’.[7] The grotesque size (the flower can grow to 1 metre), and foreign and sexual qualities are emphasised by the extended phallic spear of the spadix, the dramatic purple hood and the rendering of the strange hand-like leaves, which flail about the central spike in a ghostly, supernatural manner. This is not a tranquil scene of a happy faced lily gently swaying in a summer breeze.

Instead the rich tones and textures achieved by advances in printing techniques are used to intensify the drama, and exaggerate the exoticism of the plant more than was scientifically necessary. The deep black-purple tinting emphasises the plant’s sexuality as does the tactility of its velour-like surface; framed within a stormy backdrop, the overall effect highlights the wonder and terror of a godly creation and the strangeness of the natural world.[8] Other commentators read further gothic influences into the scene: the exploding volcano can be interpreted as an example of political instability and the visual aggressiveness as a symbol of imperial power.[9][10] Although Thornton died destitute from the failure of his publishing project, in the Temple of flora we inherit a potent artistic legacy, still redolent of the gothic stimuli which stirred its conception.


  • Grigson, Geoffrey & Handasyde Buchanan. Thornton's Temple of flora: with plates faithfully reproduced from the original engravings and the work described by Geoffrey Grigson with bibliographical notes by Handasyde Buchanan. London: Collins, 1951.
  • Harris, Stephen. The temple of flora. London: Folio Society, 2008.
  • Kelley, Theresa. Clandestine marriage: botany and romantic culture. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2012.
  • Kemp, Martin. ‘Implanted in our natures: humans, plants and the stories of art’, Chapter 10 in Miller, David Philip & Peter Hans Reill (eds). Visions of empire: voyages, botany, and representations of nature. Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 197–229.
  • Kroger, Lisa. The gothic wild: an examination of the development of the gothic forest in the 1790s. Doctoral dissertation. The University of Mississippi, 2009.
    Mollendorf, Miranda. The world in a book: Robert John Thornton's ‘Temple of flora’ (1797–1812). Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, 2013. Accessed 14 January 2018 <http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:11169773>
  • Thornton, Robert. New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus; and The Temple of Flora, or garden of nature. London: Thornton, 1807. Accessed 14 January 2018 <https://archive.org/details/mobot31753003125132>


  1. Thornton, Robert. New illustration of the sexual system of Carolus von Linnaeus; and The Temple of Flora, or garden of nature. London: Thornton, 1807
  2. Kemp, Martin. ‘Implanted in our natures: humans, plants and the stories of art’, p. 218
  3. Kroger, Lisa. The gothic wild: an examination of the development of the gothic forest in the 1790s, p. 48.
  4. Harris, Stephen. The temple of flora, p. 83.
  5. Kelley, Theresa. Clandestine marriage: botany and romantic culture, pp.71–72.
  6. Grigson, Geoffrey & Handasyde Buchanan. Op cit., p. 135.
  7. Harris, Stephen. Op cit., p. 92.
  8. Kelley, Theresa. Op cit, p. 71.
  9. Mollendorf, Miranda. The world in a book: Robert John Thornton's ‘Temple of flora’ (1797–1812), p. 176.
  10. Kelley, Theresa. Ibid, p.76.