William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings

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William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings
Top left: gambier; top right: black pepper; bottom left: wild nutmeg (Gymnacranthera farquhariana); bottom right: durian
Top left: gambier; top right: black pepper; bottom left: wild nutmeg (Gymnacranthera farquhariana); bottom right: durian
Artist Probably two anonymous Chinese artists (from Macau)
Year 1819 (1819)–1823 (1823)
Medium Watercolour on Paper
Dimensions Various
Location National Museum of Singapore, Singapore
Owner GK Goh Holdings

The William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings consists of 477 watercolour botanical drawings of plants and animals of Malacca and Singapore by unknown Chinese (probably Cantonese) artists that were commissioned between 1819 and 1823 by William Farquhar (26 February 1774 – 13 May 1839). The paintings were meant to be of scientific value with very detailed drawings, except for those of the birds which have text going beyond their original purpose. For each drawing, the scientific and/or common name of the specimen in Malay, and, occasionally, in English, was written in pencil. A translator also penned the Malay names in Jawi using ink. The paper used was normally European paper framed by a blue frame while some have no frames at all suggesting there are two artist.[1]


The drawing of this Durian shows a good example of great scientific detail reflecting the inside of the fruit and structure of the seed.

During his tenure as Resident and Commandant of Singapore, Farquhar hired a group of professionally trained Chinese artists from Macau (as described by Munshi Abdullah [1] ) to paint watercolours of the flora and fauna of the Malay Peninsula. Farquhar donated these in eight volumes to the Museum of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland on 17 June 1826. In 1937, the Society lent six of the volumes to the Library of the British Museum (Natural History) (now the Library of the Natural History Museum), retaining the two volumes of botanical drawings in its own library. In 1991 the Natural History Museum returned the works to the Society for valuation, and on 20 October 1993 the Society offered them for sale by auction at Sotheby's in London, where they were acquired by Goh Geok Khim, founder of the brokerage firm GK Goh, for S$3 million. Goh donated the drawings to the National Museum of Singapore in 1995. As at 2011, the collection was believed to be worth at least $11 million. In 2011, 70 works from the collection were placed on permanent display in the Goh Seng Choo Gallery of the museum, named for Goh's father.[2]


Due to the variable quality of work done by some artists, some drawings have proved difficult to identify. Nonetheless, botanists have identified some of these problematic drawings, one a drawing of a male Raffles's malkoha in which the breast is too yellow. Others which have yet to be identified include a drawing of a climber similar to Smilax. Plate 29 of the collection inscription reads Soogow, probably a misspelling of "saga". However, the drawing shows little resemblance to the latter.

Historians suggest that many of the backdrops of the drawings were copied from drawing manuals. One such example is a drawing of the greater mousedeer, the background of which shows a leafless climber attached to a rock. Some scholars query this, as mousedeer do not live in such rocky habitats. This suggests that either the artists did not visit the habitat of the subject, or, if they did, that they were not particularly observant.

In the book Natural History Drawings: The Complete William Farquhar Collection, Malay Peninsula 1803–1818 an article by Kwa Chong Guan suggest that there were two artist, one usually frames his works as seen in the illustration of the durian and one who does the opposite of the latter. Usually, the artist who draws a frame around his work does show fungi like shaped rocks while the other takes the rocks in its own natural form also the artist who draw frames usually has drawings of trees with its roots spread out while the other has its roots in a clenched like manner.


The works were published in two volumes, the first being,The William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings, published in 1999 showing 141 of these illustrations.[3] A second version containing prints of all 477 works in the Farquhar collection was published by Editions Didier Millet and the National Museum of Singapore in 2010.


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  1. ^ a b Laura Dozier (ed.) (2010). Natural History Drawings: The Complete William Farquhar Collection: Malay Peninsula, 1803–1818. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Museum of Singapore. ISBN 978-981-4217-69-9. 
  2. ^ Deepika Shetty (9 September 2011). "Precious menagerie: The William Farquhar collection of rare watercolours have finally found a permanent home". The Straits Times (Life!): D4–D5. 
  3. ^ The William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings. Singapore: Goh Geok Khim. 1999. ISBN 978-981-3065-82-6.  2 volumes

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