Natural History Then & Now

When William Farquhar came to this part of the world from Britain, he was given the rather weighty title:”First Resident and Commandant of Singapore.” As if that weren’t amazing enough — I don’t know of any other “first residents” — he also hired several Chinese artists to draw and paint the flora and fauna of the Malay peninsula. Four hundred and forty-seven of those watercolors were eventually donated to the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal Library, and they now rest in the hands of Singapore’s National Museum.

Farquhar was an avid naturalist, and he commissioned a wide range of paintings. Here we see gambier, a plant cultivated for compounds that were used in the leather tanning process. Gambier was such big business that the planting of these trees led to the destruction of almost all of Singapore’s natural forests (and there’s a high likelihood that my current condo sits on land that used to be a gambier plantation).

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Here we have galangal, a ginger used in many Southeast Asian cuisines:

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The Chinese artists hired by Farquhar also drew strangely elongated versions of a good number of mammals. This Malaysian sun bear is a good example of their artwork:

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Inspired by these drawings, a Japanese digital art group called teamLab has developed a huge installation called Story of the Forest. This is, in essence, Farquhar’s paintings come to life on the ceilings and walls of the museum. So where the Farquhar natural history drawings show oleander …

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… and this corkscrew vine …

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The dome at the Story of the Forest exhibit portrays the flowers like this:

… and a king cobra drawn in the early 1800s …

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… looks like this on the Story of the Forest wall:

The Story of the Forest artists get a little wacky in their colors …IMG_0796

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… and they begin to verge on psychedelic in their palette:

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But the overall effect is a lot of fun:

At the end of the exhibit, you can lie down and just watch this scene:

I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of these two sets of work (though at the end of the day, I much prefer the original to the rather wild recreation).

As a parting note, should you ever find yourself at the National Museum, it’s worth making your way to Flutes for the coconut panna cotta, which is both beautiful and delicious:

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