Naturalist and draughtsman.
A new biography of Buchanan, John appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
John Buchanan was born in Levenside, Dumbartonshire, Scotland, and educated at the parish school. He was apprenticed to a pattern designer of a print and dye works, which led him to take up the study of botany for a source of design material. This soon developed into a serious interest in the plants themselves. After moving to Glasgow, Buchanan emigrated to Otago in the Columbus in 1849, settling in North-east Valley, Dunedin. The collecting and study of plants soon became an absorbing interest and he sent large numbers of dried specimens to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The quality of these collections was such that Hooker recommended him to James Hector. When Hector arrived at Dunedin to begin a geological survey of Otago for the Provincial Government in 1862, he advertised for Buchanan who was appointed botanist and draughtsman to the expedition. With Hector, he travelled over a great part of Otago, collecting and studying the plants wherever he went. The results were summed up in his essay A Sketch of the Botany of Otago, submitted to the New Zealand Exhibition of 1865.
Until 1863 the bulk of the specimens collected had been sent to Kew for study and were incorporated into Hooker's Flora Novae Zelandiae. After this publication Buchanan continued to send plants from time to time, but retained duplicates of them in his private herbarium. With the founding of the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute he also began to publish his own conclusions, contributing nearly 30 papers to that journal.
When Hector became Director of the Geological Survey, Buchanan was appointed to his staff and also had charge of the botanical collections in the Colonial Museum, Wellington. The new appointment gave him greater opportunity for travel and study of the vegetation of the country. He visited Campbell and Macquarie Islands, Auckland, Mount Egmont, Kapiti Island, and the Kaikoura Mountains. In all these areas he collected assiduously, studying his specimens and publishing his results. Although primarily a botanist, he made contributions in the fields of geology and zoology.
His published papers reveal considerable caution as a botanist, but two contributions are preeminent. The first is the series of illustrations he provided for the first 19 volumes of the Transactions. Nearly all the drawings, in all subjects, are by his hand including the lithography. The second contribution is the excellent volume Indigenous Grasses of New Zealand, which appeared in three parts between 1877 and 1880. The work was commissioned by the Government and was the first major botanical work by a resident botanist. The illustrations were done by lightly inking dried specimens and impressing them on a lithographic stone, the details and enlargements being filled in by hand. This “nature-printing” was prescribed by the terms of the commission. The work was much more than a compilation. It included the results of Buchanan's studies of the species of grasses and also the forage potential of the native species as deduced from his own and other observations.
In the course of his journeyings throughout Otago, Buchanan managed to execute a number of water-colour drawings of the landscape. Unfortunately, only a few of these have survived. The finest, Milford Sound, which is in the Hocken Library, Dunedin, has qualities of restraint and simplification which are unique for its time.
Buchanan was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1880 and, on his retirement in 1885, a life member of the New Zealand Institute. His health became poor in his later years and he died at Wellington on 18 October 1898. His collections of plants and his voluminous notes are now in the Otago Museum.
by Bruce Gordon Hamlin, Botanist, Dominion Museum, Wellington.