~ Posted by James Manning, September 7th 2012

The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) was in its infancy when Edward Lear, then an awkward teenager who lived in Gray's Inn Road with his sister, asked for permission to sit in the parrot house at the new London Zoo and sketch the birds. His drawings became the hand-coloured lithographs in "Illustrations of the Family of the Psittacidae", a copy of which lies open to welcome visitors to the Royal Society's current exhibition, "Edward Lear and the Scientists".

Lear had a passion for colour: he had criticised earlier natural-history artists for getting the colours of their animals wrong, and he worked closely with the professional colourists who hand-painted his printed lithographs. Whenever possible Lear worked with live models, observing and capturing the way they perched, moved and caught the light. His vibrant drawings stand out from their setting, the mausolean exhibition room at the Royal Society. A toucan with a tiny malevolent eye and a serrated beak is depicted with its wings half-spread and its tail elevated; it looks ready to fly off the page. Across the room an owl glares out of another book, its head turned warily towards the entrance. On the pages of the great folios, you can still see traces of the egg whites Lear added to the paint to make his subjects' eyes and feathers shine. 

Exactly 100 years after the founding of the ZSL, David Attenborough—later a collector of Lear's natural-history drawings—was born in west London. Attenborough's forthcoming BBC1 retrospective series is subtitled "60 Years in the Wild" but, as Samantha Weinberg's interview with him in the current issue of Intelligent Life reminds us, his TV career began in black and white in the captivity of the studio. Attenborough often visited London Zoo in 1953, while he was researching for his first natural-history programme "The Pattern of Animals". He became friends with Jack Lester, the keeper of the reptile house, and—once he had persuaded his boss to let him out of the studio—journeyed with Lester to Sierra Leone in search of a white-necked rockfowl for the Zoo's collection. The expedition was recorded and became "Zoo Quest", his first major series.

"60 Years in the Wild" is a testament to Attenborough's continuing reign as the nation's best (and best loved) natural-history film-maker, but one of his most important achievements sometimes goes unnoted. In 1967, when he was controller of BBC2, he was instrumental in introducing colour television to Britain. It was an innovation that transformed natural-history broadcasting, and allowed Attenborough, like Lear before him, to help the British public to see the natural world in new colours. 

James Manning is an intern at Intelligent Life. His most recent post for the Editors' Blog was Bob Dylan's black comedy

Attenborough: 60 Years in the Wild BBC1, October