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Guest blog: Art in the Service of Science – Dunedin’s John Buchanan

Ever wondered how different people’s surnames end up as part of the scientific names given to plants and animals?  It is considered very bad form to name a new species that you describe after yourself, but someone else might do it for you as a mark of respect.  That is what happened to nineteenth century botanical collector and draughtsman to the Colonial Museum and Geological Survey, John Buchanan FLS (1819-1898).

John Buchanan, Plagianthus lyalli 1865, watercolour on paper, 143 x 225mm. This plant is now known as Hoheria lyalli, and was one of the original illustrations to John Buchanan’s A Sketch of the Botany of Otago, the essay he produced for the New Zealand Exhibition in Dunedin in 1865. Te Papa

Unsurprisingly, given the energetic botanical collecting he engaged in as soon as he arrived in New Zealand from Scotland in 1852, most of the species that bear John Buchanan’s name are plants.  But there is also a predatory sea snail, Antimelatoma buchanani described by Frederick Wollaston Hutton in 1873.  Over eighty examples of this marine snail, gathered from Deep Water Cove to Queen Charlotte Sound, are in the mollusc collection at Te Papa. 

When Hutton described the features of this new species, he was working as assistant geologist to James Hector in the Geological Survey Department in Wellington.  John Buchanan was a colleague whose sharp eye for flora and fauna that might be new to science was much admired.  His technical drawing skills were superlative, and he was the illustrator for eighteen issues of the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute from the date of its first publication in 1868.

Stereocaulon buchanani, illustration from Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute, Volume 7, 1874.

The ornamental grass Danthonia buchanani and orange sedge Carex buchanani are also named after John Buchanan, who won the first prize at the Melbourne Exhibition in 1880-81 for his technical ingenuity in producing The Indigenous Grasses of New Zealand.  This folio-sized book was nature –printed direct from the specimens themselves, and appeared in three parts in 1878, 1879 and 1880.  There is still printer’s ink on some of the grasses that Te Papa holds that were used by Buchanan to produce the lithographic plates.

Buchanan sent many of the plants he found back to experts in Glasgow or to Kew Gardens. The lichen Stereocaulon buchanani  he sent to James Stirton M.D., who – like Buchanan- had become a foundation member of the Glasgow Society of Field Naturalists in 1871. Stirton published his description as Article LIV in Volume 7 of the Transactions, and Buchanan illustrated it.

From his humble beginnings as a designer for printed calico for the textile industry back home in Glasgow, Buchanan reinvented himself as a man of science on emigration to Dunedin in 1852.  His drawing skills were his ticket to professional employment opportunities.  He worked first on the Reconnaissance Survey with Alexander Garvie, and then was recruited by James Hector M.D. in April 1862 to work as a draughtsman and botanical artist for the Otago Geological Survey.

John Buchanan, Coprosma lucida 1865, watercolour and ink on paper, 146 x 224mm. Another one of the original illustrations to John Buchanan’s A Sketch of the Botany of Otago, the essay he produced for the New Zealand Exhibition in Dunedin in 1865. Te Papa.

Hector respected Buchanan’s botanical knowledge and commissioned an essay on the botany of Otago for the New Zealand Exhibition in Dunedin in 1865, later to be published in the Transactions. Te Papa has Buchanan’s watercolours of the plants which were displayed at the exhibition as part of the work of the survey.  Many of these, including Coprosma lucida and Plagianthus lyalli have been loaned to the Hocken Library for the exhibition Art in the Service of Science: Dunedin’s John Buchanan,  which runs until 9 February 2013.

John Buchanan, Ranunculus buchanani 1865, pencil and watercolour on paper, 277 x 202mm. This plant was described by Joseph Dalton Hooker, and named after John Buchanan. It is one of the original illustrations to John Buchanan’s A Sketch of the Botany of Otago, the essay he produced for the New Zealand Exhibition in Dunedin in 1865.

Corollary to the exhibition, a two day symposium will be convened on 29 and 30 November at Salmond College in Dunedin for researchers to present their work on Buchanan.  It includes a presentation by Jim Endersby of Sussex University, whose talk at Otago Museum on Thursday evening is provocatively entitled Imperial Science: the invention of New Zealand plants.

For more on John Buchanan and the symposium you can watch an interview with Linda Tyler here.

Written by Linda Tyler, Director, Centre for Art Research, University of Auckland and Te Papa Research Associate and guest blogger.

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