- Natural History Drawings: The Complete William Farquhar Collection, Malay Peninsula 1803–1818
The William Farquhar collection of natural history drawings has a remarkable history. Farquhar served as Resident and Commandant of Melaka between 1803–18 and of Singapore in 1819–23.
During this time he commissioned a number of Chinese artists to produce paintings of the fauna and flora of the region; these totalled 477. In 1827 Farquhar donated these paintings to the Royal Asiatic Society in London, where they remained, apparently unstudied, till 1937, when six of the eight volumes were loaned to the Library of the British Museum (Natural History), now known as the Natural History Museum (NHM). After the Second World War, I. H. Burkill produced two short papers on the paintings, published in the Gardens Bulletin, Singapore, in 1949 and 1955.
In 1991 the Royal Asiatic Society requested the loaned volumes be returned and on 20 October 1993 put them up for sale through Sotheby's in London. Mr Goh Geok Khim purchased the whole collection for £1,220,000 plus commission and on 3 May 1996 presented the collection to the National Heritage Board, Singapore.
In 1999 Mr Goh published in a deluxe 2-volume large format set 141 of the paintings. These were accompanied by essays by John Bastin on Farquhar and Kwa Chong Guan entitled 'Drawing Natural History in the East Indies'. The captions were written by the late Ivan Polunin.
Since only 31% of the original drawings had been reproduced, the National Museum of Singapore, in conjunction with EDM (Editions Didier Millet), has produced a full catalogue in colour of all the paintings, adapted and condensed introductory chapters by Bastin and Kwa, from the deluxe edition, and extended—and in some cases revised—captions. Hassan Ibrahim handled those for the plants, Morten Strange for all the other drawings.
Before considering the two essays, it is worth noting that the volume under review does not give the measurements of the drawings and, perhaps more importantly for scholars, the index only includes English language names. For a full index of the scientific names, it is necessary to refer to the first volume of the earlier deluxe edition. [End Page 107]
A comparison of Polunin's commentaries on the 141 previously published illustrations with notes in the current volume indicates that a number of the identifications have been revised, improved or updated to conform to modern nomenclature.
The book contains two scholarly chapters. The first is by John Bastin, the acknowledged expert on the period. He has provided a meticulous biography of Farquhar and a full account of his work both as administrator and naturalist. Like many others operating in Southeast Asia at the time, Farquhar was a Scotsman, who joined the Madras military establishment of the East India Company in 1791. In 1795 he participated in the capture of Melaka from the Dutch and in 1803, at the age of 29, became Commandant at Melaka. He later assumed the title of Resident, and served there for more than 15 years till Melaka was briefly restored to the Dutch in 1818.
It was during this period that, as a keen naturalist, he commissioned Chinese artists to paint the pictures which now constitute the Farquhar collection illustrated in this book. He proved to be an able, kindly and popular administrator. However he lacked the cutting edge of Stamford Raffles who, though initially his junior, rapidly surpassed him in rank and influence after his arrival in 1807.
Initially the two men got on well. This, however, was not to last. In 1811 Farquhar took part briefly in the British invasion of Java, turning down an offer to become British Resident at the court of Jogjakarta. He later also served briefly at Bangka.
Towards the end of that decade he was involved in the reconnaissance of islands near Singapore in the Melaka Strait as possible sites for a new trading station. This eventually led to the...