"Cheng Hoe is to the Singapore River what Constable is to his homeland."
- Marco Hsü, author of A Brief History of Malayan Art
Lim Cheng Hoe is recognized as one of the key pioneer artists in Singapore, and the key proponent of the watercolour medium. The founder of the Singapore Watercolour Society, he also distinguished himself from the other pioneer artists schooled in western and Chinese art as he was schooled in the British education system from early age in Singapore and was instructed informally in watercolour by Richard Walker, a British watercolourist in Singapore.
Lim Cheng Hoe also stood out from other watercolourist who took painting as a leisurely pursuit. He wanted to advance his technical abilities and pursued outdoor painting seriously, finding the most inspiration to paint and experiment with colour and form in the face of a live subject.
The Singapore River was the recurring theme in his life’s works and a fitting subject for an artist whose personal life – as a child who had grown up under the British, schooled in western art and as an adult who made Singapore his home – is intertwined with the colonial history of Singapore. Lim favoured natural landscape but was also the de facto leader of a group of artists known as the Singapore River Artists from the 1950s onwards. They gathered to seek out new locations for painting but oftentimes returned to the Singapore River which provided plentiful riverine activities to engage them.
Boats in the Singapore River (Lot 361) is an iconic work in Lim Cheng Hoe’s oeuvre, where the masts of small rowboats emphasize the verticality of the unusual scroll format chosen by Lim for this painting and also lead the viewer into the painting, culminating in the impressionistically-render old two-storey Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce building on Armenian Street which was replaced in 1963. Referring to the significance of entrepôt trade and the important role played by Chinese migrants, merchants and trading houses, Boats in the Singapore River is a fitting summation of the history of Singapore, centred on its river.