Forewarned and intrigued by notabilia's post, and not about to pay S$800 for a limited edition 2-volume selection of 'The William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings', D and I popped into the re-opened Goh Seng Choo Gallery at the National Museum to view the drawings.
A small portion was on display a couple of years back and now, the full set has found a permanent home in this small gallery. For now, it's free admission to the public. Not all 477 commissioned works in the collection are displayed. Only 70 are brought out at any time with one annual rotation scheduled.
While you can stroll through the 70 drawings in a matter of 15 minutes, it would be nice to allocate a little more time to appreciate the history. We lingered over the drawings for a closer look. The techniques of the Chinese artists commissioned to do these paintings are most interesting. It's a mix of Chinese brushwork (shade, texture and dotting) and Western watercolor dry-brush techniques which blend beautifully into the details of the veins of leaves and shades of color on the fruits, spices, porcupine quills, feathers and tree bark.
The works are gorgeous in their hand-painted glory in a quaint, almost archaic style. They're also however, absolutely entertaining in their non-precise details, torn between Farquhar's scientific requirements and the artists' recherché slant. They look nothing like the creature we can rationally envision. It's quite a hoot since we now know what the real bird/animal looks like in hindsight gleaned from digital manipulation.
There're the monkeys which are rather hilarious. We naughtily grinned and whispered of not knowing any monkey this elegant. We were rather entertained by some of the descriptions which acknowledge the implausibility of certain birds associated with local flora. The drawing of the Blue-Winged Pitta is matched with a mangosteen tree. The description wryly states, "The blue-winged pitta, an uncommon visitor to Singapore, is depicted here on an unlikely perch - a mangosteen tree."
|'Oriental Bay Owl and Angsana'|
At the 'Oriental Bay Owl and Angsana', I paused and giggled. It looks like an exotic owl straight out of 'One Thousand and One Nights'. The description read, "This drawing illustrates the tension between Farquhar's demands for scientific illustration and the artist's aesthetics interventions. In adhering to the standards of botanical drawing, the artist included a dissection of the individual angsana flower. Yet, much of the rest of this drawing is imagined, from the unrealistic separation of the owl's stylised feathers to the deliberate rendering of a canopy over its head."
We just had to go to the museum shop. D needed to buy some prints of Singapore for her associates. We browsed the shop's eclectic and varied offerings. Yes, the S$800 book is available at the museum shop. Errmmm, I don't love the contents enough to pay the asking price. However, there's a more affordable one-volume version at S$70 which includes essays by John Bastin and Kwa Chong Guan providing insights into background of each painting and William Farquhar himself.