National Museum of Singapore to open William Farquart Gallery

William Farquhar documented much of Singapore and Malacca’s diverse flora and fauna when he served as first resident to both states in the 1800s. His precious collection of 477 paintings found its way back to this part of the world when it was purchased and donated to the National Museum of Singapore by Goh Geok Khim and this September, the collection will be permanently housed at National Museum’s The Goh Seng Choo Gallery. A portion of his 477 paintings and drawings will be featured each time and rotations will be carried out once every year.

The Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings belonged to an historical era when interest in natural history was popular in educated and affluent European society. Many wealthy Europeans collected specimens of flora and fauna.  With the spread of European colonialism and the discovery of all things new, the acquisition of knowledge of the natural history of these lands was an important endeavour for European colonial empires.

In Farquhar’s time, the area to the east of the Melaka river consisted of a shallow coastline which was fringed by an extensive jungle nearby. These were possibly the sites where much of the flora and fauna specimens would have been sourced for the Collection. Farquhar is mentioned as a collector of all kinds of animals and birds in the Hikayat Abdullah, the autobiography of Munshi Abdullah, Farquhar’s contemporary in Melaka. He was said to have kept a large tiger, a leopard, a wild cat, a wild dog, a porcupine, a cassowary, and various kinds of monkeys. The tiger, which was popular with visitors, was captured as a cub and raised by Farquhar and his helpers. When it died, Farquhar had it skinned and stuffed for preservation.

Without local knowledge, Farquhar, like other European patrons with similar interests, would have difficulties finding, let alone collecting the many specimens in the surroundings. Munshi Abdullah mentions Farquhar paying a Malay pawang (medicine-man) who had offered his services to capture a herd of elephants. When the captured elephants died, Farquhar kept their bones and later donated a skeletal head and some other parts to the museum of the Royal Asiatic Society in England.

Farquhar frequently shared some of his specimens and drawings with scientific institutions overseas. In 1816, he sent his account, a drawing of a Malayan tapir and the skull to the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta, India. In 1818, he sent a specimen and a drawing of a large bamboo rat to the same institution.

All these natual history watercolour would have been executed by Chinese artists in the region.

Infra-red imaging of a selection of the Farquhar drawings undertaken in 2006 indicates two broad styles of painting. On a number of them, there was a very close match between the initial sketch and the subsequent application of colour. This suggested a filling-in technique, and the drawings appeared rather stiff and bearing minimal artistic flourish. On other drawings, the initial sketches appeared to act as a guide, resulting in a mismatch between the initial sketches and the paint application. These appeared livelier and exhibited a balance between reality and artistic interpretation.

The Chinese artists in Melaka would have used traditional techniques based on Chinese painting manuals like The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting and the Ten Bamboo Studio Album for Farquhar’s drawings. Many drawings of animals in the Collection have a landscape of rocks or windswept grass which is not representative of local terrain.

Birds and flowers were, however, drawn more naturalistically as there was already an established tradition in Chinese art. Figures and objects were traditionally depicted in flat, two-dimensional space in comparison to the European use of linear perspective.

When the Chinese artists attempted to adopt the latter, an unnatural flatness can be seen in the drawings of trees in the Collection where branches were arranged symmetrically on either side of the tree trunk.