Highlands that Never Stop Inspiring Artists

By Ooi Kok Chuen

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William Daniell’s Halliburton’s Hill, *1818. Oil on canvas, 69cm x 100cm.

SOME OF THE earliest records of Penang Hill before photography became popular are in the form of 19th century topographical drawings, most of which are now in the possession of the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery and the National Gallery Singapore.

Their subjects include man-made edifices such as Halliburton’s Hill (now the site of Bellevue Hotel), Strawberry Hill (now known as Tea Kiosk), Crag Hotel, Convalescent Bungalow and Bel Retiro.

With temperatures hovering between 20-27° Celsius, the hill resort is more than just of topographical, heritage and historical interest. The Dipterocarp forest cover is a diverse ecosystem for rare plants, bird species and small animals such as flying lemurs and civets, monkeys and tree shrews.

Among the extant early works are oils, aquatints and engravings such as those by Capt. Robert Smith, William Havell, William Daniell, Charles Dyce, Capt. Charles Hazalet, Capt. R. Elliott and W. Spreat.

View of Prince of Wales Island from Strawberry Hill, by William Daniell.

Smith’s oils of the views from Convalescent Bungalow and Halliburton’s Hill (both 1818) stand out for the lustrous vegetation and attention to details. Havell painted View from Penang Hill from his 1817 sojourn up in the hills from the vantage point of Strawberry Hill, while Daniell made aquatint copies of Smith’s, and his repertoire included that of Strawberry Hill (1821).

Dyce attempted Convalescent, Fern Cottage and Strawberry Hill apart from his better-known A Glimpse of the Plains from the 5th Milestone, Penang Hill (1847). Dyce is the subject of author Irene Lim’s book, Sketches In The Straits: 19th century watercolours and manuscript of Singapore, Malacca, Penang and Batavia (National University of Singapore Museum, 2004). Dyce was said to have made frequent visits to Batavia, Melaka and Penang, and the Penang works include Strawberry Hill – The Residence of Sir William Norris, Penang Hill, 1846.

A newspaper clipping showing Charles Dyce's A Glimpse of the Plain from the 5th Milestone Penang Hill.

W. Spreat’s sketches of Penang Hill (c. 1852) are featured in Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat’s Penang Views 1770-1860 (Summer Times Publishing, 1986) and Sarnia Hayes Hoyt’s Old Penang (p. 63, Oxford University Press, 1991). Capt. Hazalet is represented by his 1856 watercolours of View from Penang Hill, Flagstaff and Government House.

Of Smith’s View from Convalescent Bungalow, Lim wrote in his book (p. 105: “…we can see the magnificent mountain ranges with Kedah Peak to the left, Kuala Muda, swinging to the Bukit Mertajam hills and the Prai River to the right.”)

William Daniell and his uncle Thomas Daniell were among the first British artists to visit Asia. Other British artists who painted 19th century Penang sceneries include James Wathen, James George, Thomas Prinsep, William Westall and William Huggins.

There was also a scattered group of artists of Chinese descent with the monikers Sun Qua (View From Strawberry Hill, after William Daniell; active from 1830-1870) and Lamqua (not to be confused with his grandson of the same name but spelt Lam Qua), doing what is euphemistically called “Chinese trade paintings. ” Sun Qua, once dubbed the “Chinese Hogarth”, made prints and copies of painted scenes of Penang, Macau, Shanghai, Guangzhou and even Rio de Janeiro from his atelier base in Guangzhou and later in Hong Kong, besides dabbling in gouache, while Lamqua (c.1802-1860), was a protégé of Briton George Chinnery (1774-1852).

Penang Hill Railway, Khaw Sia.

Before October 21, 1923, when the funicular railway was opened (though officially only on New Year’s Day 1924, and by Straits Settlements Governor Sir Lawrence Guillermard), access to the peaks was by hiking or horseback or being carried on a dooly sedan chair by six coolies.

Later, there was also a tarred jeep track. Apart from the railway station in Air Itam, the hill resort can be accessed from Moongate in the Botanic Gardens, Air Itam Dam, Hye Keat Estate and the City Park (formerly the Youth Park).

Alas, construction of the railway also saw the demolition of Strawberry Hill, the building that is said to have been variously owned by Francis Light, David Brown and William Edward Phillips, an owner of Suffolk House.

Syed Thajudeen. Penang Beauty: Penang Hill, 2015. Oil on canvas, 150cm x 150cm.

The Bukit Bendera (Flagstaff Hill) peak of 833 metres is surrounded by a bevy of subsidiary hills such as Bukit Laksamana (Admiral Hill), Tiger Hill, Halliburton’s Hill, Fern Hill, Strawberry Hill, and the last two, Government Hill and Bukit Timah (Tin Hill), which are catchment areas.

Bellevue Hotel used to be bedecked with paintings like those of Khoo Sui Hoe in the public areas and Hassan Djaafar in the rooms, and an exhibition was held there on October 31, 1989 as part of the Penang Hill Festival launched in July that year.

Ch’ng Kiah Kiean. View of George Town with an area of 293 square kilometres.

Ooi Kok Chuen

art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend.