Damaged portraits of Mr and Mrs Lee completed

A Couple (left) by Tan Swie Hian (above left, with art collector Wu Hsioh Kwang) was inspired by a photograph of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his late wife, Madam Kwa Geok Choo (both below), which the artist saw in the book Lee Kuan Yew: A Pictorial Biography.

More than a year after a fire left an unfinished painting of Mr and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew partially damaged, the artwork is finally complete.

Fire broke out in January last year, at the Telok Kurau Studios, two doors away from the studio of local multidisciplinary artist Tan Swie Hian. Then unfinished, the rolled-up painting was soaked by water used by the firefighters.

In June this year, Tan finished the 2.13m by 3.39m painting, created from oils, acrylics and ink.

It is hanging in a house belonging to Mr Wu Hsioh Kwang, a prominent local businessman and art collector, who is also Tan's friend. Mr Wu's home in Bukit Timah consists of three levels of artworks created by Tan.

Says Mr Wu, 63: "I feel this is a very important artwork because Mr and Mrs Lee's love story is part of our nation's history. Their love story is something all Singaporeans can learn from."

Recalling the fire, Tan, 71, says in Mandarin: "Back then, the water and soot resulted in some of the painting's colours smudging. This artwork has gone through a baptism of fire and water. I'm glad it's finally complete."

Titled A Couple, the painting shows former prime minister Mr Lee and his late wife, Madam Kwa Geok Choo, in their youth. It was inspired by a black-and-white photograph of the young couple on the campus of Cambridge University in 1946.

Tan had started work on the painting in 2009 on Valentine's Day.

He says: "I chose to paint them because everyone can learn from their love, especially in this day and age where life expectancy is rising and divorce rates are high. Here is a couple who entered into marriage and lived together happily."

He adds: "Mrs Lee once said she was a traditional Asian wife who always walked two steps behind her husband. Those words left a strong impression on me."

Mrs Lee died in October 2010 at the age of 89. After her death, Tan, who is also known for his poetry and calligraphy, wrote a poem - in English and Chinese - in her memory. He incorporated the poem into the painting's background to give it an "added dimension".

He says: "I've always felt she was a great woman who, despite her intelligence and capability, was also a humble and dedicated wife."

To further show his admiration for the couple, Tan added two Vanda Miss Joaquim orchids, connected by a twinned stem, next to Mrs Lee.

His biggest challenge was making out the expression on her face as a shadow is cast on it in the photograph. Another challenge was imagining the colours from the black-and-white shot.

Tan adds: "The photo's background is also filled with buildings and very complicated. I veiled the background with clouds to bring the figures into full focus."

Tan was recognised as Singapore's most expensive living artist after one of his oil and acrylic paintings, When The Moon Is Orbed, was sold for $3.7 million at an auction in Beijing in 2012.

Last year's blaze had left several of his pieces irreparably damaged.

He says: "I had to cut up 14 of my oil paintings from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s because they were damaged beyond repair. It was very, very painful.

"Thankfully, this painting of Mr and Mrs Lee was not one of them."

This article was first published on October 25, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.