Amazing Rare Things - The Art Of Natural History At The Queen's Gallery

By Caroline Lewis | 22 March 2008
a drawing of a snake and a Caiman in a fight

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717). Common or spectacled caiman and South American false coral snake, c.1705-10. The Royal Collection © 2008, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Exhibition preview: Amazing Rare Things at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until September 28 2008.

Even in a world where you can visit your local zoo and see exotic species from distant continents, or switch on the television and learn the ins and outs of a meerkat’s maternal habits or watch a boa constrictor catch its dinner, other living things hold an intense fascination for us humans.

We can only imagine what curiosity such creatures and newly discovered plants inspired in the days before such collections and observation methods. The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace is delving into a period when new aspects of natural history were eagerly sought and recorded, indeed in a way that shaped its future study.

Amazing Rare Things: The art of natural history in the age of discovery, has been curated by the Royal Collection in collaboration with our most famous living naturalist, Sir David Attenborough. It focuses on the works of four artists and a collector, whose passion for enquiry and nature left a beautiful and bizarre legacy of images and writings from a time when new species were being discovered at a rate never superseded.

a drawing of various spiders in the branches of a tree

Maria Sibylla Merian, Branch of guava tree with ants, spiders and humming bird. c.1701-05. The Royal Collection © 2008, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is known as a great scientist as well as artist, producing detailed anatomical studies to accompany treatises.

The exhibition illustrates the depth of his interest in anatomy and botany, with studies of the skeletal structure of a bear’s foot, for example, and detailed plant studies. His studies for the vegetation in the foreground of his painting of the myth ‘Leda and the Swan’ are the earliest evidence in Italy of the grass poetically known as Job’s Tears.

A member of Europe’s first modern scientific academy alongside Galileo, Italian antiquarian Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588-1657) had his own home zoo.

He pursued the kind of empirical investigation that transformed the study of natural history in the 17th century. His palazzo in Rome housed a laboratory with scientific instruments and a famous library, as well as a collection of specimens.

a drawing of a red centred plant

Mark Catesby (1682-1749). Magnolia bull bay, c.1722-26. The Royal Collection © 2008, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Dal Pozzo commissioned artists to record plants, birds and animals for his ‘museo cartaceo’ (paper museum) – a pictorial encyclopedia of the world. It included such delights as a dissected porcupine, a three-toed sloth, a misshapen fruit and fossils – all recorded with equal measure of painstaking scrutiny.

The 17th century was boom-time for plant cultivation, with gardening the absorbing pursuit of scholars and collectors.

Alexander Marshal (c1620-82) was part of a circle of leading gardeners of the time, which included famous plant collector John Tradescant the Younger and John Evelyn. They exchanged botanical specimens and ideas.

Marshal created an exquisite book of drawings of flowering plants in English gardens, a ‘florilegium’. Indigenous species flourish alongside then new imports like tulips and hyacinths, and trompe-l’oeil creatures embellish the foliage, like a grass snake slithering under a Seville orange.

a painting of a large colourful fish

Mark Catesby (1682-1749) Great hog fish, c.1725. The Royal Collection © 2008, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) was also a flower painter, and earnt her living doing so, as well as teaching and dealing in paints and pigments abroad in Frankfurt and Amsterdam.

Her works demonstrate a lifelong fascination with insects, spiders and caterpillars, that culminated in a trip to Dutch colony Surinam to chronicle the lifecycles of its South American moths and butterflies. ‘Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium’ (1705) was pioneering and most significant in its era. Its style is often dramatic, or even macabre – a pink-toed tarantula is poised to devour a hummingbird in one image, a water bug eats a frog in another.

The final artist on show was also a pioneer in his field. Mark Catesby (1682-1749), a self-taught artist from Suffolk, produced the first comprehensive survey of the flora and fauna of the south-east coast of North America.

The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1729-47) was based on two visits to the New World, partly supported by Sir Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum. Catesby’s watercolour studies were painted in the field, while animals were alive and plants freshly gathered.

a painting of a sloth

Unidentified artist, Maned three-toed sloth, 1626. The Royal Collection © 2008, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

“There is a common denominator that links all these artists,” says Sir David Attenborough. “It is the profound joy that all feel who observe the natural world with a sustained and devoted intensity.”

This is an exhibition preview. If you’ve been to see the show, let us know what you think?

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