IHBC features ‘Heritage from the Global doorstep’: Restoring a colonial tribute fountain – Tan Kim Seng Fountain

image for illustration: CC BY-SA 3.0, Tan Kim Seng Fountain

The Commonwealth Heritage Forum is helping restore a colonial tribute fountain to Chinese merchant and philanthropist Tan Kim Seng.

… The Victorian-style cast iron fountain [was] manufactured by Andrew Handyside and Company in England…

Commonwealth Heritage Forum writes:

The 142 years old Tan Kim Seng Fountain is currently undergoing major restoration exercise, probably the most extensive one to-date.  The fountain was commissioned by the British colonial authorities as a tribute to Mr. Tan Kim Seng (1805 – 1864), a respected Chinese merchant and philanthropist whose contributions were pivotal in modernising Singapore’s water system during the 19th century. His financial support played a crucial role in advancing water supply infrastructure, reflecting his commitment to the development and well-being of the community. Mr. Tan’s esteemed status among the European and British communities in Singapore further emphasises the significance of the fountain as a symbol of cultural exchange and cooperation during that era.


The Victorian-style cast iron fountain, manufactured by Andrew Handyside and Company in England (Grace’s Guide 2022) was originally installed in 1882 at Fullerton Square (NLB, Singapore Daily Times 1882). In 1905 the fountain was relocated to Battery Road and in 1925, to The Esplanade, where it remains to this day (NLB, The Straits Budget 1929). This relocation was likely part of urban planning or development efforts at the time. The fountain’s design is characterised by multiple tiers adorned with intricately carved details and sculptures, culminating in a round basin at the base.


In 2010, the Preservation of Sites and Monuments (PSM), a division under the National Heritage Board (NHB) of Singapore, has gazetted the Tan Kim Seng Fountain as a National Monument (NHB 2010). This designation ensures its protection and preservation for future generations. Over the years, various government agencies, including the National Parks Board (NParks), have been entrusted with the care and maintenance of the fountain. NHB meanwhile provides guidance on preservation and upkeep in accordance with the Preservation of Monuments Act, ensuring that the monument receives proper attention and protection. Continuous efforts to maintain and conserve the fountain, ensuring its longevity and safeguarding its historical and architectural value has led to its current 4th cycle of restoration since its move to The Esplanade.


Documentation, architectural assessment and condition assessment

Prior to the restoration, available archival documentation, historical accounts and past records were combed through. Those who were involved in the previous restoration exercise were tracked down and interviewed, some of whom amazingly retained vivid memories of works done, despite 30 years ago. A detailed condition assessment was carried out to identify various types and stages of deterioration affecting the fountain. Such appraisal was supported by a series of non-destructive tests such as surface-penetrating radar, ultrasonic thickness measurement, in-situ X-Ray fluorescence and fibrescope. These provided deeper understanding into the condition and construction details of the fountain. Study of paint layers across the fountain meanwhile gave traces of historical works, treatment and maintenance activities offering a peek into practices, skills and knowledge of years gone by. The quality of the cast iron was also assessed from metallurgical examination.


The fountain has suffered significant wear and damage, affecting both its functionality and visual appeal. Corrosion was extensive, both on exposed surfaces and especially in concealed spaces. Small parts or fragments were completely broken under severe corrosion. Intricate details were obscured by multiple layers of paint from past repainting exercises. Rather than offering protection to the cast iron, such unduly thick paint layers were not only peeling but had also caused other paint layers to fail. This can arise from a lack of understanding of paint chemistry, inadequate appreciation on compatibility of paint systems and often poor workmanship.


Numerous past alterations had been made to the fountain. One notable intervention involved the application of dense cement mortar on the cast iron basin, likely to address previous water seepage issues. The top vase had been replaced with a different model as far back to before 1994.  Some of the spouts and outlets such as those at the urn of the cherubs and mouth of marine creatures had been sealed, effectively altering the original water display of the fountain and hence its original design intent.


The construction and key sections of the fountain were investigated via inspection and strategic paint removal on site. This vital process served to develop the sequence of dismantling before shipping the fountain offsite for restoration (Figure 5). The extent of deterioration, necessitated a complete dismantling of the fountain parts for thorough intervention. The complexity of the process was uncovered when a total of 257 distinct pieces of various sizes were finally taken apart from the body of the fountain (Figure 6). Besides cast-iron, thin ornamental brass elements were also found. However, it is not known if these are original or replacement of damaged elements. (e.g., floral motifs). The condition and dimension of the fountain, basin and the individual elements were digitised through photogrammetry, laser scanning and structure light scanning methods to provide important accurate documentation for repair and recast where necessary.


Cleaning, Treatment and Discovery

Removal of deteriorated paint and rust took many rounds of trials involving different methods and media for cleaning and surface preparation. In the process, unexpected discoveries emerged. An example was the names of ‘Dante’ and ‘Canova’ found engraved on a book held by Calliope, a Greek mythological goddess of poetry. This illustrates the attention to detail by the fountain designer. It underscores the importance of thorough research and attention to detail during the restoration process, as evidenced by unexpected findings like this. Selection of protection coating involved the balancing act between science and art, adequate thickness for protection vs loss of definitions of fine ornamental features. A systematic process for monitoring, tracing, and checking have been developed to ensure that all parts of the fountain are adequately  cleaned and treated. At the time of writing, all parts have been prepared for final coating. The next challenge is re-assembling all the 257 components securely.


The processes undertaken in the restoration of the fountain demonstrated the complexity of and the need for detailedness in the works, from investigation, documentation, research, dismantling, repair, and repainting to its eventual re-installation. As the intricate details of its Victorian-styled design are meticulously restored, the fountain begins to emerge as a testament to the enduring spirit of shared history. Its once-deteriorated features are revived, breathing new life into the landmark and reigniting interest in its narrative richness. Upon completion, the fountain will stand as a visual spectacle, attracting visitors from near and far to admire its beauty and craftsmanship. But beyond its aesthetic appeal, the fountain will also serve as a repository of historical significance, offering insights into Singapore’s past and celebrating the legacy of individuals like Tan Kim Seng who shaped the nation’s development. With its restored splendour, the Tan Kim Seng Fountain will symbolize the collective efforts of stakeholders, conservationists, and community members who rallied together to preserve Singapore’s heritage. Ultimately, it will stand as a beacon of Singapore’s cultural heritage and reaffirming the nation’s commitment to honouring its past while embracing its future. This project has been carried out with contributions from NParks, NHB, contractor (W’Ray) and consultant (MAEK).

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