AN AMBITIOUS botanical
work was published by Robert John Thornton between 1797 and 1807.
The third volume of The Temple of Flora: Or, garden of
nature. The Temple of Flora is still highly prized by
collectors for its detailed and dramatic hand-coloured plates of
Dr Thornton was an exact
contemporary of the painter John Constable, and the two men shared
political and religious perspectives that were characteristic of
the educated classes of their era.
In 1824, Thornton wrote:
"Adore the supreme BENEFACTOR for the blessings he showers down
upon every order of beings; adore HIM for numberless mercies which
are appropriated to thyself; but, above all, adore HIM for that
noble gift of a rational and immortal soul . . . we are qualified
to admire our MAKER'S works and capable of bearing his illustrious
Thornton was a passionate
defender of the established British constitution. In 1795 he
resisted protests from English radicals, and opposed their
"levelling ideas", which he saw as a threat to "the best
constitution in the world".
MOST astonishing of all
to the 21st-century mind, however, is the way that Thornton's
understanding of the ordering of society is reflected in the
botanical illustrations to the Temple of Flora. This is
demonstrated through the important relationships between the floral
subjects and the landscape backgrounds in each image, and is
articulated in some explanatory verses.
The backgrounds function
in a similar way to those seen in many 18th-century portrait
paintings - they indicate the status of the sitter. Thornton
perceived a parallel "natural" social hierarchy of plants, in which
he saw the mirror image of an equally "natural" social hierarchy in
flowers rear their heads with a majestic mien; and overlook, like
sovereigns or nobles, the whole parterre. Others seem more moderate
in their aims, and advance only to the middle stations; a genius
turned for heraldry might term them the gentry of the border. While
others, free from all aspiring views, creep unambitiously on the
ground, and look like the commonalty of the kind.
Thornton's work reminds
us that, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, beauty was not
merely "aesthetic", but was perceived in anything that was believed
to offer a reflection of the divine ordering of things. This was
true of anything, whether it was observed through the discipline of
classification within the natural sciences, or, more
controversially, in the stratification of a society where people
were expected to "know their place".
A VERSE in Cecil Frances
Alexander's hymn "All things bright and beautiful":
rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.
has been excised from
modern hymn-books because of a sense of unease about its theology
and politics. Its detractors also think that it seems out of place
within a composition that celebrates aspects of the beauty and
providence of nature.
Approaching the verse
from Thornton's perspective, however, helps us to appreciate how,
when it was written in the mid-1840s, it was an integral part of
the hymn - arguably the most important part, especially when
It deals with human
relationships in the context of God's sovereignty over society:
"God made them, high and lowly." Everyone, in other words, occupies
a divinely ordained place in the society which operates according
to God's plan. This was supposed to be something for which
worshippers were expected to be grateful.
THORNTON's world-view is
characteristic of the era that formed the social, scientific, and
theological backdrop to the first half of Mrs Alexander's life (she
was born in Dublin in 1818, and married an Anglican clergyman in
In her hymn, there are
even hints of an awareness of the importance of the detailed
scrutiny that undergirded the processes of classification in the
natural sciences - science was, at this time, effectively a branch
of theological inquiry. Mrs Alexander referred to "each" little
flower and "each" little bird, along with certain of their
characteristics - wings, colours, and so on.
Meanwhile, it is possible
that moral judgements are being made. In the chorus of the hymn,
the words "great", and "small" may be intended to denote
significance rather than size. For Thornton, some kinds of plants
and their "callings" were seen as more important than others,
although the "small" things also have a place in God's plan.
A generation or two
before "All things bright and beautiful" was written, there was a
widespread fear that the sort of social meltdown that had torn
French society apart would reach Britain's shores. In England, this
nervousness, which had been experienced by Thornton and Constable,
persisted well into the 1800s.
Mrs Alexander may have
had other, more immediate concerns about threats to the status quo.
In Ireland, angry tenant farmers from the Roman Catholic majority
were resentful of the fact that they were forced to subsidise the
Church of Ireland, and an uprising called the Tithe War continued
throughout the 1830s.
IN THE UK, and the Irish
Republic, we now subscribe to different political and theological
ideologies, which are at odds with Mrs Alexander's third verse. Now
that science and theology are, for the most part, independent
disciplines, the discernment of "moral meaning" in the material
world is not usually part of the aims of the former.
There is, however, a
verse in the hymn that is often "starred", but not usually omitted
from printed versions, which serves as a reminder that creation
still has some lessons to teach us.
tall trees in the greenwood,
The meadows for our play,
The rushes by the water,
To gather every day.
Although this may not
reflect 21st-century work or recreation, the reference to the
gathering of rushes is a subtle but vital reminder that humans can,
and do, have an impact on the natural environment.
This could be as a result
of anything from picking a handful of wildflowers to being directly
(through agricultural activities), or indirectly (as consumers),
responsible for the decline in the population of bees.
People who are concerned
about the stewardship of the natural environment, and see it as
God's creation, can argue that it still has lessons to teach us.
Some of these are scientific: for example, when the necessity to
develop environmentally friendly forms of crop improvement, or pest
control are revealed. Others are "moral": when nature behaves in
ways that suggest that humans need to alter their patterns of
consumption, or distribution.
We are neither observers
nor controllers of the world in which we live, but part of its
ecosystems. The final verse of "All things bright and beautiful",
which strangely evokes the words of Dr Thornton quoted earlier,
invites us to tell everyone about God's good works in creation;
works that we recognise through grace:
gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we may tell
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well.
The Revd Dr Stephen Laird is Dean of Chaplaincy at the
University of Kent, and Priest-in-Charge of Blean.