Amazing Rare Things: Attenborough on the original naturalists

David Attenborough pays homage to the original naturalists in his latest show. They had some wild ideas, says Sophie Morris

It's time to put away the tissues and the worn DVD box-sets of The Blue Planet. David Attenborough retired from our screens (for the second time) when Life in Cold Blood ended last week, but he remains true to his mission of bringing us the wild and the downright freaky as curator of Amazing Rare Things, which opens today at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace.

The exhibition brings together works from four artists and one conscientious collector and spans 300 years, from the mid-15th century to 1750. All five were fascinated by the new species being discovered in the New World by seafaring explorers. You might say, then, that the broadcaster is paying homage to Attenboroughs of times past.

The beautiful drawings and paintings betray the naiveté of the age. Take, for instance, the Maned, Three-toed Sloth, shown here. As portrayed by an unnamed 17th-century artist, the beast is immense and covered with thick brown fur, its front legs twice the length of its hind legs, and its claws unnaturally long and curved.

"He did his best to draw an honest picture," says Attenborough of the artist, whose painting was part of the collection belonging to Italian antiquarian Cassiano dal Pozzo. "But you can see him saying to himself: 'I'll draw this, but this is so silly. This is no kind of animal. It couldn't even walk.'"

Leonardo da Vinci, a keen naturalist, is represented by his anatomical studies of a bear's foot and a cow's uterus.

"Leonardo is in a different category altogether," Attenborough says, in that whispery drawl, "He is an active investigator, as opposed to the others, who are recorders. But the thing that unites them all is the sense of wonder: the innocent eye looking at a new range of creation."

Amazing Rare Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery, The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, until 28 September