John Rutherfurd Blair (baptised John) was born on 8 February 1843 at Airdrie, Lanarkshire, Scotland, the son of Jane Rankin and her husband, Robert Blair, a miner. John entered the office of a large Glasgow paper merchant before emigrating in 1860 to Melbourne, Australia. Here he worked for Sands and MacDougall, which at the time was becoming one of the largest firms of stationers, booksellers and printers in Australia. At Melbourne, on 24 September 1869, he married Jean Ferguson Cowan of Dunedin, New Zealand. The same year they moved to Wellington, where Blair became Sands and MacDougall's New Zealand representative. There he lived for the rest of his life, first in Vivian Street, and later, as he prospered, on Wellington Terrace (The Terrace).
Blair joined the ageing William Lyon in his bookselling and stationery business on Lambton Quay, and became a partner with Lyon's son, Horatio, in the renamed firm of Lyon and Blair in 1874 when William Lyon retired. He then bought out Horatio Lyon, but kept Lyon's name in the title of the firm, thus retaining the identity of one of Wellington's earliest businesses. During the next 20 years Lyon and Blair became one of the largest and most important printing, publishing and bookselling businesses in the colony. In association with his master printer, Coupland Harding, Blair made notable contributions to the publication of works by New Zealand authors and to local publishing standards. When Lyon and Blair published Edward Tregear's Maori–Polynesian comparative dictionary (1891) – at 675 pages the largest work yet produced by a New Zealand private publisher – the Sydney Morning Herald praised the excellence of its typography, editing and general finish, comparing it favourably with the work of the foremost London publishers.
Blair had an abiding belief in the importance of education, and he did more than any other person to lay the foundations of public education in the city and province of Wellington. He was elected to the Mount Cook School committee in 1877, and in 1880 to the Wellington Education Board, which he chaired from 1882 to 1903. Blair chaired the Wellington College and Wellington Girls' High School board from 1886 to 1898. An early advocate of a university institution for Wellington, he was a foundation member and first chairman of the Victoria College council. He also chaired the school commissioners who administered reserves of educational land in the Wellington province from 1884 to 1911.
Blair was equally dedicated to the cause of technical education – for girls as well as boys – and it was during his chairmanship of the Wellington Education Board that the Wellington Technical School opened in 1891. He was a council member of the Fine Arts Association of New Zealand from 1884 to 1887, and it was through his initiative that the society found its first permanent home. He took all his duties seriously, not for the purposes of self-aggrandisement but in the service of others: his became a respected household name throughout the Wellington province.
A great reader and collector of books, Blair kept himself well informed of the intellectual currents of the time through the leading British periodicals. He thought deeply about the great late-Victorian issues of material progress and spiritual well-being, the rival claims of religion and science, and the role of the state in safeguarding the interests of the generality of citizens whose only economic asset was their labour. He was convinced that the ancient religious leaders and philosophers had spiritual messages that still had to be recognised by contemporary society, with its obsessive concern with material progress. Undogmatic in his own beliefs and tolerant of different views in others, he hoped that from Christianity without a creed and religion without sectarianism would 'spring a tree of life…under the shelter of whose branches the brotherhood of man will be united.'
In 1888 Blair founded the magazine Hestia as a forum for others who shared his quest. After four issues it was incorporated in the broader-ranging Monthly Review, which he published for two years. With Edward Tregear, who had been one of his leading contributors, he was a prime mover in inaugurating the Polynesian Society in Wellington in January 1892. He served on its council in 1892–93 and remained a member for the rest of his life. Lyon and Blair was the society's first publisher.
Blair sold Lyon and Blair to Whitcombe and Tombs in 1894 in order to devote more time to his educational responsibilities and his other business interests. He became a director of the New Zealand Shipping Company, the Mutual Life Association of Australasia, and several Wellington public companies. He was to die a wealthy man. He was appointed to the reconstituted board of the Bank of New Zealand in 1898, and was unanimously elected chairman. During his three years in the chair the bank was restored in public confidence.
In 1897 he was prevailed on to stand for mayor of Wellington. He won easily and was returned unopposed in 1898. Although pressed hard, he declined to stand again in 1899 because of ill health. As mayor, Blair opened public debate on the issues that would dominate civic politics for the next decade: the amalgamation of the boroughs of Melrose, Karori and Onslow in a greater Wellington; municipal control of the tramways and the supply of water and electricity; relationships with the harbour board and central government over the use of their land; and, with the advent of trams and motor cars, the planning of roads and other services originally built for horse-drawn traffic. The great national event of his mayoralty was the farewell of the First New Zealand Contingent for the South African War on Trafalgar Day, 21 October 1899, over which he presided. In a speech interrupted by loud applause the mayor of the Empire City showed himself to be a true son of the empire. History was being made, he said, as, for the first time, New Zealanders would engage 'hand to hand, shoulder to shoulder with the forces of Great Britain'.
Blair was a man of broad sympathies. Employees respected him as a fair employer; businessmen held him in the highest regard. As mayor he found work for unemployed men. His sympathies included prison inmates: he was a justice of the peace and visiting justice for the two Wellington prisons from 1887 until his death, and was one of the original members of the Prisons Board established in 1911 to consider applications from prisoners to be released on probation. It was while visiting New Plymouth for the Prisons Board that he fell ill with heart disease, from which he never recovered.
Blair died at Wellington on 25 November 1914, and flags in the city were flown at half-mast. Ever attentive to detail, he had prescribed the manner of his funeral: his body was to be cremated after a private function, and were a clergyman to be present he was to be paid £5 for his attendance. He was survived by his wife and their son, Robert Fergusson.