January 2013: The Nepalese Botanical Drawings of Francis Buchanan
The Nepalese Botanical Drawings of Francis Buchanan
Dr Francis Buchanan F.L.S. pioneered the scientific study of biodiversity in Nepal during a year spent in the Kathmandu valley as surgeon to the Knox political mission, 1802-3. The majority of species Buchanan encountered were new and he had to coin hundreds of new names just to refer to them in his notes and collections. Buchanan recorded well over 1000 plant species, but unfortunately he ran out of time to fully work them up for publication. Knowing that on his return to India he would be sent on another onerous mission, Buchanan presented his original manuscript records, herbarium specimens and colour drawings to Sir James Edward Smith during his UK furlough in 1806. Tragically Smith did little with them, publishing only a small fraction of the hundreds of new species that Buchanan had discovered, and barring contemporaries access to them. On Smith's death the material passed into the Linnean Society, at last available to scientists, but under-utilised as their true scientific value had not been realised.
Of particular importance amongst the Buchanan collections at the Society are the 110 original colour drawings of plant. These original drawings were prepared by an Indian artist from Calcutta, sadly as yet un-named. Not only are they are a key element of ongoing scientific research on the collections and understanding the names Buchanan used. Digital images are now available on the Linnean Society website.
High quality digital prints have been produced and these were used in a travelling exhibition in Nepal, led Dr Mark Watson FLS last year. Public reaction to the exhibition was tremendous with people marvelling at the vibrancy and artistic detail of the paintings, and the long history of Britain-Nepal relations that they represent.
The exhibition also had a serious side as it conveys messages on the real and immediate threats to biodiversity in the Himalayan region. Many of the plants pictured were once common in the Kathmandu valley, but now are hardly seen at all. Some have declined due to habitat destruction and deforestation, but many, especially the orchids, have suffered greatly from over-collection for trade in ornamental or medicinal plants.