This website is an extension of a display, currently on show on Level 5 of the Arts West Building at Melbourne University. It documents the results of an investigation by Harriet Parsons, Chris Bond and Matt Coller into the work of Alexander Buchan, an artist who died on Captain Cook's Endeavour voyage of Pacific exploration in 1769.

The project is based on Parsons' doctoral thesis in which she argues that Buchan's reputation has suffered as the result of the practice of the artists on the Endeavour of signing each other's work. Although it was common in the eighteenth century for an artist to sign the work of an assistant, some of the works signed with Buchan's name are extremely inferior, while his better known colleague, Sydney Parkinson, has ‘signed off’ on some of his most beautiful works as the senior artist assisting the naturalists, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander.

Almost nothing is known of Buchan's life and work before the voyage and until further documents are found, his practice must remain central to his biography. Over the course of this project, Chris Bond, a contemporary artist, investigated Buchan's approach to drawing by experimenting with his materials, reproducing his watercolours and building a replica of his cabin from the Endeavour’s plans. These experiments revealed tangible information about the practicalities of documenting specimens, such as fish, birds and jellyfish, in the conditions on board the ship.

Matt Coller, a digital cartographer, joined the project in 2020 with the support of a grant from the Centre of Visual Art (CoVA). He created an animated map of the ship's voyage from England to Madeira based on the coordinates and course descriptions in the journals of the Master, Robert Molyneux, the astronomer, Charles Green and Cook himself. Bond's experiments and Coller's detailed reconstruction of the ship's daily progress, provided the parameters for an investigation into Buchan's activities on the ship constrained by its internal spaces and the conditions imposed by the external weather and ocean.

The detailed picture that emerged of Buchan's life prompted questions that we put to experts in fields including zoology, botany and maritime history; and the curators of the Natural History Museum in London and the Sydney Maritime Museum, the home of the Endeavour replica. Their commentaries have been inserted into the video here:

The Artists of Captain Cook's Endeavour Video.

The confused bodies of work that have been attributed to the artists on the Endeavour, based on their signatures, has profound implications for the art history of this voyage and its broader narrative. The most egregious example is the sketchbook of the First Nations artist, Tupaia, which, until 1997, was erroneously attributed to Banks. This attribution created a distorted impression of relations at first contact in Tahiti that historians are only beginning to readjust now.

In this project, covering the first nine weeks of Cook's voyage, the researchers present evidence of up to five artists who assisted Parkinson during the Endeavour's first landfall in Madeira, including local artists and two of Banks' field assistants or 'servants', one of them, the black horticulturalist, Thomas Richmond.

By making a close examination of the practices of the artists who created the Endeavour's pictorial records, and identifying their creators as well as the signatories, new and complex histories may emerge from the documents. One of these is Alexander Buchan's. The real quality of his work, so long obscured, is revealed by his unpublished zoological drawings in the Natural History Museum in London. Harriet Parsons has photographed a number of these works on a visit to the archive and you can view the images by browsing the zoological collection on this website.