As he is a newish knight of the realm, it is right, methinks, that the great television warrior Sir David Attenborough should elect to serve his sovereign, and cheer up us serfs, by selecting a display of limning for the Queen’s Gallery. And we are not talking here about any old limning. We are talking about some of the most beautiful limning in the Royal Collection, sights so rare and precious that they make a man coo likeColumba palumbus with pleasure. Forsooth, I hear you utter, what can this fool be wittering on about? Is it not well known that Her Majesty has all manner of great limnings in her castle, stuff by Rembrandt and stuff by Caravaggio, the inkings of Raphael and Michelangelo, the illuminations of Velazquez, Bruegel, Rubens and that Italian fellow with the birdy name? Oh yes, Titian.
Yes, she has all that. But did you know, serf, that tucked away in the royal bottom drawer is also a fine hoard of early natural-history illustrations, some of the first attempts by Europeans to record in detail the glories of our kingdom and lots of others, too? It is into this royal treasure trove that Attenborough of the lake, the jungle and the seashore has bravely plunged. And emerged with some crackers.
A commoner like me finds it difficult to imagine why the Royal Collection should possess these treasures. I understand the showy Fabergé eggs for the royal piano top, and the chunks of the Kohinoor in the royal jewellery box, but in what circumstances did our appalling monarchs ever display enough scientific acumen, or the necessary artistic interest, to gather up these gorgeous records of the first microscopic staring?It appears they entered the royal goodie box in various ways. The Leonardo drawings – 600 of them! – were probably acquired by the long-haired wastrel Charles II, trying to make up for the dispersal by Cromwell of Charles I’s magnificent cellar of Italian art. Say what you like about George III – and some say he went as nutty as Bertholletia excelsa, or the brazil nut – but by buying 2,500 drawings from the collection of Cassiano dal Pozzo, more than 250 watercolours of early America by Mark Catesby and 95 paintings of South America by the mysterious Maria Sibylla Merian, he, more than anyone, introduced a spirit of scientific inquiry into the expensive business of amassing a royal collection. Then there was George IV, the podgy, drink-loving king of the cuckolds. By Excalibur’s might, the man’s been misunderstood! Not only did he build the wacky Brighton Pavilion, but, while still Prince of Wales, he took possession of 150 watercolours of plants, bugs and animals by Alexander Marshal, an unsung genius of horticultural investigation and this display’s finest discovery.
The pageant has been christened, with plebeian directness, Amazing Rare Things. Which is exactly what it contains. Attenborough’s greatest gift to us, as a presenter, has been his utterly tangible delight in the sights he brings us. That, too, is what distinguishes these early observers of nature’s bounty. Although Leonardo, who opens the tourney, is a stern old science teacher by instinct, and seems always to be more interested in working out how things function than in dazzling us with their beauty, even he cannot disguise his wonder at the things before him. I particularly enjoyed a red-chalk drawing of a sprig of oak, heavy with acorns, which started out as a piece of scientific observation, but seems somehow to have acquired the warmth of a Christmas card. A fabulous sheet covered with tiny thumbnails of an angry cat, hissing and splaying itself before an unseen threat, is breathtakingly exact in its capture of hostile feline moods.
Leonardo is touched by simple things. By the excitements under his nose. The epoch in which he was working, the early 16th century, is not yet an epoch of exotic foreign discovery. By the next room, however, we have certainly landed in one. It’s as if God’s giant hand has reached down and flicked a great big light switch. The beasties grow larger, brighter and stranger. The sense of amazement at what is being witnessed acquires a hallucinatory intensity. The tone changes from sepia to lurid. And we find ourselves in a glorious, full-colour paradise crammed with remarkable sights.
Cassiano dal Pozzo was an impresario rather than an artist. Having decided that it might be profitable to record the wilder wonders of nature and put them in a book, he got in others to do the drawings. Unlike Leonardo, whose loyalty was to the truth, dal Pozzo had a showman’s taste for the dramatic and the bizarre. Thus, the lemon he had Vincenzo Leonardi paint for him in 1640 was cruelly deformed and looks more like five bright yellow radishes roped together. Even a humble piece of broccoli gets turned into a big green monster. In another life, you sense, dal Pozzo might have run a freak show; here he unveils giant mushrooms, galloping sloths and the detached head of a pelican.
It’s exciting stuff, but I prefer the more innocent eye of Mark Catesby, who made two journeys to North America in the early 18th century, then spent 20 years publishing a magnificent two-volume study of The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, for which the Royal Collection has the original watercolours. Catesby was a proper naturalist, carefully recording the birds, plants and animals he encountered, and keen to evoke some sense of their behaviour in the wild. Like all the early naturalists, however, he was starved of reliable information and often forced to rely on flights of fancy. Look at his monstrous envisioning of a nightjar eating a cricket. Or the shark-like ferocity he imagines for the multicoloured hogfish.
Attenborough has focused on the earliest days of natural-history illustration: the glory days, when so many of nature’s best mysteries had not yet been cracked, when new sights from new places were being discovered all the time, when the sense of wonder generated by foreign marvels felt almost biblical in scale. God’s kingdom was being voyaged across as never before, and every ship that docked in Plymouth or Lisbon or Genoa seemed to bring proof that there was, indeed, an Eden.
The most courageous artist here was Maria Sibylla Merian, born in Frankfurt in 1647. She dreamt for decades of visiting the Dutch colony of Surinam to study the bugs, and finally managed to when she was 52. Merian’s twirly-whirly imaginings of caymans eating coral snakes and silk moths munching on swamp plants do not strike me as particularly accurate, but, more vividly than her fellow limners, she understands that nature is never still, but always twirling and fluttering and growing and fighting.
The best natural-history illustration, however, does not need to exaggerate, dramatise or overcrowd. It need only show us what is there. This is the approach of Alexander Marshal, a self-taught 17th-century English horticulturalist who shoots straight into my top 10 of English baroque artists. There’s something entirely trustworthy about his records of daffodils, tulips, peonies and honeysuckle. In the end, you don’t need to travel to encounter extraordinary things. You need only look out your window.