Zoological and botanical prints commissioned by Singapore's 'first resident'
Above (detail only): Binturong
Above (detail only): Durian
Above (detail only): Gambler
Above (detail only): Goldfish
Above (detail only): Hornbill
Above (detail only): Malayan Tapir
Above (detail only): Nutmeg
First published on . Updated on 16 Jan 2013.
With the acquisition of 477 watercolours preserved from the collection of Singapore’s ‘first resident’ William Farquhar – who arrived on the island together with Sir Stamford Raffl es in 1819 – the former second-floor Balcony Room in the National Museum of Singapore has been redubbed the Goh Seng Choo Gallery, named after the collection’s donor. It now takes its place as the museum’s sixth permanent exhibition – along with the ‘Living Galleries’ of fashion, food and more.
With natural-history drawings being the closest thing to photography of the era, the pieces offer valuable insight into the biodiversity of the region during the 19th century. Paired with the written descriptions, some in Farquhar’s own hand (visible along the margins), we’re also given clues into the man’s personal life, as well as his mindset and enthusiasm as a naturalist. Notably, the watercolours reveal several plants and animals he discovered – including a sample of wild nutmeg (the Latin for which is named after Farquhar), a Malayan tapir and other hitherto undocumented species.
When Farquhar’s publication was delayed, other discoveries were credited to his contemporaries, including the more ambitious and well-connected Raffles (one of several reasons Farquhar remains overshadowed in history). Though Raffles has certainly received the lion’s share of fame, his own collection of nature drawings was lost at sea en route home to England, leaving Farquhar’s collection as the undisputed top source for 19th-century scientific realism in the area. Presenting the collection to the public now is just one step, however belated, in acknowledging Farquhar’s social and scientific legacy here in Singapore. In accordance with conservation measures, the selections from the collection will be rotated annually; the former balcony’s windows are shuttered to give the room a dim setting under controlled lighting.
The inaugural display, featuring about seventy pieces selected by curator Daniel Tham Dek Won, offers a good representation of the overall collection, showing both fl ora and fauna – from newly discovered species to animals and crops raised on Farquhar’s estate. Berwin Song