Robert John Thornton and his Botanical Lottery

By Alexandra Caccamo, Assistant Librarian with responsibility for Special Collections and Archives

Tragopogon pratensis, Goat’s-beard

In the Russell Library we have a small collection of natural history books. One of the botanical books in this collection is Robert John Thornton’s The British Flora or, Genera and Species of British Plants, published in 1812. When we look at the title page, we can see that the book was printed specifically for a lottery. At first glance what looked like quite an unassuming book, seems to have a story to tell.

Title page of The British Flora or, Genera and Species of British Plants (1812)

Robert John Thornton is thought to have been born in 1767. His father was the successful writer, Bonnell Thornton. Destined for the Church, he began his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge at just 16 years. However, he was not to continue with the theological life. While at Cambridge, he became interested in medicine and botany.

Robert John Thornton (1767-1837)
Source: CC BY 4.0 via Wellcome Collection Gallery

By 1797 he was working as a doctor in London. It was also the year in which he first advertised the monumental work that was to define his life, A New Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnaeus. This elephant folio was published in 3 volumes between 1799 and 1807 and is commonly known by the title of the third volume, Temple of the Flora. This volume contains lavishly produced aquatint and mezzotint plates, illustrating plants in evocative settings. Originally to include 70 plates, the author quickly ran into financial difficulties and his ambitions were curtailed, with the final work containing around 30 plates.

Night Blowing Cereus or Cactus grandiflorus. From A New Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnaeus. (1799-1807)
Source: CC BY NC SA 4.0 via Peter H. Raven Library/Missouri Botanical Garden.

Thornton’s financial strife in relation to the book was due to several reasons. Firstly, the public desire for these large-scale botanical works had waned and interest in his publication was not what he had hoped at the outset. Also, Britain was at war with France, which resulted in increased taxation and economic strife. Thornton laments in the Temple of the Flora “…infuriate war has constantly and violently raged, which like a devouring conflagration, destroys everything before it…”. In order to offset the costs of the production and save the project from disaster, Thornton obtained an act of parliament allowing him to organise a lottery. Advertised as “The Royal Botanical Lottery”, he sought to sell twenty thousand tickets at a cost of two guineas each. This is where our book comes in. Listed in the advertisement as fifth prize, there were 2000 copies available to win. Sadly, the lottery did not raise the expected £42,000 and the publication left Thornton and his family in financial ruin. He died virtually penniless in 1837.

Ranunculus repens, Creeping Buttercup
Prunus domestica, Plum

The book itself contains uncoloured engravings of British plants, arranged according to the Linnean system of classification. The text is in English, with both Latin and common plant names given. He lists the defining characteristics of each genus, as well as the derivation of the generic name. The images you can see here are some plants you might find in flower or fruit at this time of year.

If you would like to see more of these or any of Robert John Thornton’s other works, they are available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library or Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

Further Reading:

Blunt, W. and Stearn, W. T. (2015). The Art of Botanical Illustration. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club (2015).

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