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Visual Arts

Earl Lu

Renowned general surgeon and keen philanthropist, art patron and painter.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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Nothing is forever. You are the custodian of art, and you pass it on.

Dr Earl Lu was a renowned Singaporean general surgeon by profession as well as a keen philanthropist, art patron and painter. In serving on several institutional boards to promote the visual arts and art education, heading the Singapore Art Museum as Chairman for eight years and collecting and donating to various museums and galleries many art works by pioneer and emerging Singapore artists, he was one of Singapore and Southeast Asian art’s strongest advocates. Himself a painter, he is known for his paintings of roses.

Dr Earl Lu Ming Teh was born in Hong Kong on 15 September 1925. The only son of four children of a banker and homemaker, Earl grew up in Hong Kong, Malaysia (Klang), Shanghai and Singapore where he studied at St Andrew's School from 1938 to 1942, and India (Simla) where his family had escaped to just before Singapore was invaded by the Japanese and where he completed his O levels. India where his family lived for a year was also significant because it impressed on the then 17-year-old the importance of spirituality in life, and gave him an affinity for Hinduism that would last a lifetime.

Lu subsequently moved to Australia where he studied medicine at the University of Sydney. There he attained not only his medical degree, but also met Norma who would later become his wife. He returned to Singapore in 1958 to practice as a general surgeon and raise his family. While working as a general surgeon, he also gave his time to volunteer work. During the 60s, he began volunteering at the St Andrews Mission Hospital, and later on through the 70s and 80s, volunteered as a field medic with the Singapore Armed Forces.

Lu’s love for medicine was matched by his passion for art. This had developed early on as a child surrounded by traditional Chinese ink paintings and antique ceramics which his father and grandfather loved and collected. Lu too started collecting art while still a student, buying at first prints and photographs that he could afford. It was only when he began working as a surgeon that he became a serious collector, buying Chinese and Southeast Asian Paintings and ceramics and building up a large and invaluable collection.

He later donated most of the works to various institutions including the Asian Civilisations Museum, National University of Singapore museums and Singapore Art Museum. He also donated several artworks by Singapore pioneer artists to the LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, leading to the institution naming its art gallery after him. Additionally, when Lu became the Singapore Art Museum’s founding Chairman in 1992, a role he served until 2000, the museum, under his advice, bought many 20th century Southeast Asian art works and today its collection is considered the largest in the world.

Sometime in the ’50s, Lu himself began to paint. Then in his early 30s, he took lessons from pioneering Singapore artist, teacher and furniture-maker Chen Wen Hsi, who was a friend of his father. Under Chen, Lu learnt to paint from life and became a keen student of Chinese ink painting. After years of practice, he became an accomplished landscape and figurative painter, painting landscapes as seen in his imagination and painting female figures often as sensual motherhood figures. Although an art buyer, he did not make money from his art works, choosing instead to give them away or donate them to art institutions and causes.

By the early 2000s, Lu had become one of Singapore’s leading surgeons, been appointed a Justice of the Peace in 1990, received the Public Service Star Award from the President in 1995, donated many precious paintings and ceramics in his collection to museums, supported organisations such as the National Arthritis Foundation, organised several charity auctions with proceeds from the sale of his works going to various medical funds, served as President of the Southeast Asian Ceramics Society and the Society of Chinese Artists, and served on the boards and committees of several institutions to promote the visual arts and art education such as the Lee Kong Chian Museum’s Acquisitions Committee and the Istana Art Advisory Committee.

When Lu retired in 2003, he threw himself into art-making, enrolling in drawing classes at LASALLE College of the Arts and travelling overseas with fellow artists to paint. On 2 September 2005, during a cruise in the Mediterranean, Lu contracted pneumonia. He was brought to Pisa, Italy and passed away two weeks before his 80th birthday.

Today, his rose paintings continue to grace the walls of several hospitals including the National University Hospital, Mount Alvernia Hospital, and the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, UK, gracious reminders of their creator’s many contributions to the fields of art and medicine in Singapore.

Timeline

15 Sep 1925

Born in Hong Kong.

1926 to 1938

Spent early childhood in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Shanghai.

1938 to 1942

Enrolled at St Andrew's School, Singapore.

1942

Attained GCE O Levels at Bishop Cotton School in Simla, India.

1950

Houseman at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, Australia.

Medical Officer (Tuberculosis), Chest Hospital in Blue Mountains, Sydney, Australia.

Lecturer in Anatomy and Embryology Surgery, University of Sydney, Australia.

1951

Attained Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery (MBBS), University of Sydney.

1956

Began painting with mentor Chen Wen Hsi.

1960

Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (FRCS), England and Edinburgh.

Voluntary surgeon with the St Andrews Mission Hospital.

1962

Fellow of the Academy of Medicine (FAMS), Singapore.

1972 to 1978

Member, Medical Council

1972 to 1991

Volunteer army officer cadet (medical officer with the Singapore Armed Forces); retired as Lieutenant-Colonel.

1980 to 1990

Had private practice at Mount Elizabeth Hospital.

1986

Received LASALLE Award for Distinguished Service to Arts Education.

1989

Justice of the Peace.

1990

Committee member, United Overseas Bank art committee.

Chairman, Lee Kong Chian Art Museum acquisitions committee.

1991

Held fundraiser exhibition Days of Wine and Roses at Allan Art Gallery, Singapore.

1992

Held joint exhibition with British transplant surgeon Sir Roy Calne at the Raffles City Convention Centre, with proceeds donated to the Cambridge and Singapore liver transplant programmes.

Member, Board of Directors, LASALLE College of the Arts.

External examiner in art at LASALLE College of the Arts.

1992 to 2000

Served as first chairman of the Singapore Art Museum.

1993

Exhibited at Nee Soon East art fair, Singapore.

1994

Held fundraiser exhibition Rhythm & Vitality at Empress Place Art Gallery, Singapore.

1994 to 2000

Art Advisor, National Arts Council.

1995

Received Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star).

1997

Receive Montblanc Arts Patronage Award.

1998

Held solo exhibition at Alliance Francaise, Singapore.

2000

Was Chairman of the Istana Art Collection Advisory Committee.

2001 to 2003

Consultant surgeon, Earl Lu Clinic.

2002

Held solo exhibition, A Feminine Rose, at Valentine Willie Fine Art, Kuala Lumpur.

2003

Member, Land Transport Authority Art Review Panel.

2 Sep 2005

Passed away in Pisa, Italy.

2005

Posthumous solo exhibition Earl Lu @80: Beyond the Golden Mean held in his memory at Art Forum gallery, Singapore.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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