Science versus art | State Library of New South Wales

Science or art: Robert Thornton

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. 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. Although Thornton did not include any Australian plants in his book, it is an important and beautiful example of a book produced to satisfy a wealthy and demanding amateur market.

 > View selections from Thornton’s Temple of Flora

Temple of Flora

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