Richard Walker, Colonial Art Education and visiting European artists before World War II

Kwok Kian Chow

This document is part of a joint project of the Singapore Art Museum and the Honours Core Curriculum, National University of Singapore. This image and accompanying text appears here with the kind permission of the Singapore Art Museum.

While these different artistic trends from China were influencing artists in Singapore, another avenue of discourse was introduced by European artists who visited Singapore in the same period.

Richard Walker arrived in 1923 and was appointed Art Master of Government English Schools. Reporting on incidental cases of art activities within the formal educational system, he acknowledged that a handful of students was being prepared for art papers in the Cambridge junior and senior examinations. However, he also noted that they were not receiving adequate instruction, Walkers official role in Singapore thus appeared to be that of fulfilling a requirement of the education system rather than taking the initiative as a British administrator actively participate in the local art practice. But Walker personally regarded the purpose of art education to be "the training of observation, building up of a retentive memory, stimulation of imagination and cultivation of taste," and once wrote that he felt alone in his dreams in disseminating these aesthetic values ("Ruminations").

His Self Portrait Walker's own art education was in mural painting at the Royal College of Art. He also studied craft subjects including pottery, stained glass, woodcarving, metalwork, enamelling, calligraphy and illumination (Cheong Hock Hai). His Self Portrait was probably painted in the 1930s.

Kusu Island Malay Kampung Clarity of subject and sometimes allegorical rendition of figuration in the muralist tradition are often reflected in Walkers work His landscapes, like Malay Kampung and Kusu Island, are naturalistic and sensitive renditions of local scenery.

From 1937, Walker's designation was charged to Art Superintendent Singapore Schools. He organised and taught art classes at the Raffies Institution for art teachers and interested students. That year, the St. Andrew's School Sketching Club was formed, its establishment no doubt influenced by the school principal, Francis Thomas, who was also active in art education. In 1938, Walker taught art to nor-English speakers (mainly Malay teachers) for the first time.

Watercolour was the key medium taught in the art classes of the British colonial school system. Richard Walker taught it at Raffles Institution while the sketching dub of St. Andrew's School also used the medium under the encouragement of Francis Thomas.

Lim Cheng Hoe, a largely self-taught artist, was affiliated more with this formal British art education that with the Chinese migrant artists since he attended art classes as a secondary school student in Raffles Institution, His diary entry for 11 October 1930 records his love for art:

Mr [Richard] Walker, my master in Drawing, awarded the prize he promised me... this morning... It is not the prize so much as the glory, honour and recognition, that I am happy over. Drawing is the one subject I like best among the school lessors, and to win recognition in the subject is "to find a fraction of my daydreams realised."I am powerless to describe in words the ecstasy of joy I felt! [p. 4]

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After leaving school, Lim continued to pursue art and regularly read magazines such as The Artist: The Mogazine for Artists, Instruction and Review and Studio International.

A number of European artists who also lived, worked and/or exhibited in Singapore during the 1930s and 1940s would have given pause for thought to aspiring artists like Lim. Among them were Russian artists Anatole Schister (McNally p.2) and Dora Gordine (R.O.W.), British painters Margaret Felkin and Eleanor Watkins, Austrian sculptor Karl Duldig (Yeo Mang Thong pp. 109-11) and the Belgium artist Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur.

Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur's three exhibitions at the YWCA in Singapore in 1933, 1937 and 1941 created a significant impression amongst the pioneering generation of Singapore artists in terms of visual expression and the perception of Bali as an artistic haven. Like Paul Gauguin, Le Mayeur went in search of Tahiti but found his paradise in Bali. Writing in 1969, Chen Chong Swee recollected Le Mayeur's exhibition in Singapore in the 1930s:

This Belgian artist originally wanted to go to Tahiti as he had a yearning for the type of life led by the Postimpressionist artist Gauguin, On his way there he passed through Bali and found that there was no place on earth like Bali -- its dancing and singing so soul-stirring and its women so vigorous and graceful.... It was around the summer of 1938 that he held a second art exhibition in Singapore.... I remember seeing many of his large landscape paintings done during his travels in India. His works were executed with free-flowing and bold, strong strokes, in bright and gay colours. Figures dominated his Bali paintings. His works, be they sketches done in light colours or bright-coloured oil paints, showed that they were inspired by the brilliant and clear tropical sunlight. His brightly-clad, energetic and graceful dancers, dancing to the beat of the drums and bells, or his women, kneeling beside the loom weaving sarong cloth, fully demonstrated the tranquil and fine life of the Balinese. Le Mayeur's painting partner (who later became his wife), attired in traditional Balinese costumes, was on hand to receive guests. She offered herself bare-breasted for photographs. This created quite a stir in Singapore. [Kwok Kian Chow].

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If the idiom of Post-impresslonism was introduced through Le Mayeur, the language of Classicism was found in Dora Gordine.

Malay Head Indian Head Chinese Head Gordine was encouraged and influenced by the French sculptor Aristide Maillol whose more sensuous treatment of the human form set him apart from his contemporary Auguste Rodin whose work epitomised the expressive Romanticism. Gordine's work, like Maillol's, is more in line with the Classical tradition, manifesting universal and idealised human forms - as in the racial characteristics of the busts she sculpted - rather than the individual and his emotions. Malay Head, Indian Head and Chinese Head sculpted by Dora Gordine in the early-1930s are currently in Parliament House. They are likely to be part of a group of works bought or commissioned in this period to decorate the interior of Singapore's new Municipal Building (later City Hall) which was completed in 1929. A Straits Times article of 1932 noted:

... it is extraordinarily pleasing to think that the City Fathers of Singapore were so quick to recognise genius in their midst. They have wiped away the reproach that Singapore is blind to the humanities and cares only for the dollar. By their purchase of six pieces of Dora Gondine's work they have made Singapore one of the art centres of Asia: so far as I know, the only Asiatic centre for so much perfect European work ... [R.O.W]

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Cheong Hock Hai. "Foreword" in Singapore Art Society, Richard Walker (exhibition catalogue), 1972.

Joseph Mcnally. "Singapore Art: Past and Present", in 25 Years of Arts in Singapore. National Day Art Exhibition catalogue, 1984.

Kwok Kian Chow. Chen Chong Swee: His Thoughts, His Art. Singapore: 1993.

R.O.W. "The Language of Plastic Beauty: An Appreciation of the Work of Dora Gordine". Straits Times, August 5,1932.

T.K. Sabapathy. "Image and Medium: The Painted World of Lim Cheng Hoe".

Yeo Mang Thong. Xinjapao zhanqian huaren meishushi lunji. Singapore Society of Asian Studies, 1992.

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Last updated: May 2000