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Picturing the plants

With its dull marbled cover and tatty leather spine, the 32cm, 200 page volume known as 'MS41 John Buchanan notebook' languished, wallflower-like, in the Auckland Museum's manuscript collection for over a century before making a reappearance in 2012. 

The quality of Buchanan's illustrations shows drawing skills honed by years of designing floral patterns for printed calico in Scotland.

© Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira

A colonial critique

This book shines a light into the corner of New Zealand's science history and throws up the long shadow of the man who made it, botanist and Colonial Museum draughtsman, John Buchanan FLS (1819-1898). His sharp blue eyes noticed differences between the plants he had collected around Wellington in 1866 and the 'official' descriptions in Joseph Dalton Hooker's newly published (but unillustrated) Handbook of New Zealand Flora, commissioned by the New Zealand Government.

Picking up a pencil and his tablets of watercolour, he started to sketch the dissimilarities he could see between the plant specimens in the Colonial Museum's Wellington herbarium where he worked and the Handbook’s version of what the plant should look like.

A time before rabbits

When writing his handbook, Joseph Dalton Hooker was working from dried specimens sent back to London by ship - he had not seen all 935 flowering plants growing.

In contrast, Buchanan was constantly roaming New Zealand, collecting and observing colour in growing plants. When the specimen he is depicting has lost its gloss, he points this out. With his stalk of kiekie, Freycinetia banksii, for example, he writes "the sienna tint on drawing is from decay".

Buchanan was documenting the glorious variety of New Zealand flora from a time before rabbits, painstakingly illustrating what Hooker at Kew could only imagine. In the back of the book, (p.193) he moves on to depicting wood ear fungus found in Dr Hector's garden in Petone in June 1885 which he bravely asserts should be called "Agaricus adhaerens" and annotates "N.Sp. [new species] J.B."

A picture paints a thousand words

Buchanan's drawing skills were honed by years of designing floral patterns for printed calico in Scotland. This study of flowers led to a hunger for botanical knowledge satisfied by classes at the Glasgow Mechanics' Institute taught by renowned botanist Roger Hennedy.

Penning notes as to where and when he collected the plants he depicts, Buchanan puzzles over the mismatches with Hooker's descriptions. The specimen of Pittosporum crassifolium is from a plant grown at Wellington, possibly at the Botanic Gardens where Buchanan oversaw the plantings. 

He writes: "It is difficult to make out what Hooker means by 'bracts broadly ovate ciliate imbricate'. There is no appearance of any bracts at all on the plant unless one or two floral leaves be considered so and they do not agree with the description."

Elsewhere he delights in finding anomalies: the flowering rata Metrosideros florida "Petals distinctly yellow, differing from Hooker’s description of M.florida as pink."

A mutual admiration

Given that Buchanan spent most of his New Zealand time in Wellington or Dunedin, how did his notebook find its way into the Auckland Museum collection?

Thomas Cheeseman (1845-1923), first curator of the Auckland Museum, might have known the answer. Buchanan visited Auckland in the 1880s as he neared retirement, promoting the creationist response to Darwin's theory of natural selection. Maybe Buchanan took a liking to the younger enthusiast, and gave him his precious botanical? Was it Cheeseman who scrawled 'J.Buchanan’s notes' in pencil on the first page?

Buchanan's corrections of Hooker, neatly defined drawings and attention to Māori names would have helped Cheeseman in preparing his own definitive Manual of New Zealand Flora which appeared in 1906. Illustrations by Miss Matilda Smith of Kew followed in 1914. Buchanan was long dead, but Cheeseman uses the book's introduction to acknowledge his indebtedness to his predecessor.

It was likely to have been admiration for its maker that ensured that Cheeseman kept the notebook for Auckland Museum's manuscripts collection, forever preserving the painted evidence of Buchanan's superior botanical knowledge and artistic skills.

Further reading

  • 2012. Adams, N. 'Buchanan, John', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

Cite this article

Tyler, Linda. Picturing the plants. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 16 June 2016. Updated: 28 July 2016.
URL: www.aucklandmuseum.com/discover/collections/topics/picturing-the-plants

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