Queen Victoria's Portraits
or a school that was founded from excess funds collected to celebrate the golden anniversary of the reign of Queen Victoria, it was rather surprising that for the first seven years of the V.I.'s existence no image of the longest reigning British sovereign ever gazed upon her young subjects in a school bearing her name.
In 1900, Mr. Bennett Shaw, the V.I.'s first headmaster, went home to England on ten months' leave and when he returned from Europe in December he informed the boys that Her Majesty Queen Victoria was graciously pleased to present to the Victoria Institution a photogravure portrait of herself. The portrait, which stood on an easel under cover of the Union Jack, was then unveiled in front of the school and with three lusty cheers for Her Majesty the impressive ceremony was brought to a close.
That portrait was lost during the Second World War.
In 1949, appropriately on Empire Day - May 24, the birthday of Queen Victoria - Sir Henry Gurney, the British High Commissioner, paid a visit to the V.I. After inspecting a Guard of Honour mounted by the V.I. scouts, Sir Henry proceeded with the Headmaster, Mr. E.M.F. Payne, to the School Hall where representatives of the VIOBA were presented to him. He read out the Empire Day message from Earl Gowrie and then unveiled a new portrait - an engraving - of Queen Victoria, which was a gift from Queen Mary, the Queen Mother, herself. The High Commissioner described the portrait as a symbol of the traditions of the School. He had, he said, submitted to Her Majesty an expression of deep gratitude of all connected with the V.I. for "this token of continued remembrance", which, he hoped, would serve to guide the present and future generations of Victorians in the paths which the Old Boys had followed.
For the next two years this portrait hung at the back of the V.I. stage. Then in 1951, a new portrait - an oil painting - of Queen Victoria was commissioned for the school by Sir Henry. The artist was one Mohammed Hoessein Enas, a Javanese who had lived in Malaya since 1948 and had painted portraits of several Sultans, Mentris Besar and members of Malay royalty. Hoessein Enas (later Dato') was born in 1924 in Bogor, Java and was primarily self-taught. During the Japanese occupation, he was an artist for the Japanese Information Department in Sumatra. After a dramatic escape to Malaya, he spent many months as a penniless trishaw driver in Singapore. After the war, he had gained rapid fame in the fifties and sixties in the Malaysian art world for his distinct portraiture art in the style of the old Dutch masters.
Sir Henry had been wanting a bigger portrait for the V.I. to replace his 1949 gift. After viewing some of Hoessein Enas' works, the British High Commissioner had asked the artist to first do a pastel sketch based on the engraving. When this was approved, Hoessein Enas set to work copying the 1949 portrait in oil. The new picture, some eight times the size of the original, was finished in a fortnight. The gilt frame was ordered from a shop in Kota Bharu where Hoessein Enas was residing at that time.
In late September, 1951, Hoessein Enas took the portrait to King's House, the residence of the High Commissioner, for Sir Henry's approval.
Then fate stepped in.
On October 6, Sir Henry and his wife drove off for a holiday in the cool air of Fraser's Hill. The Malayan Emergency was then at its height with terrorist attacks occurring frequently in various parts of the country. As Sir Henry's car, travelling in a armed convoy, wound its way uphill between Kuala Kubu and the Gap, it was ambushed by a terrorist unit firing down from the thick jungle fringing the road. The convoy came to a halt as the firing intensified. Apparently hoping to draw fire from Lady Gurney in their unarmoured Rolls Royce, Sir Henry opened his car door, sprinted out and was immediately felled by a hail of bullets.
A month later, in November 1951, with memories of the assassination still etched in everybody's minds, a solemn school assembly was held in the V.I. Hall. There, the completed oil painting of Queen Victoria in a sparkling gilt frame - Sir Henry Gurney's gift to the School - became a posthumous gift officially unveiled by Mrs. P. Hogan, wife of the Acting British High Commissioner. (The redoubtable General Templer would only arrive in February 1952 to take over as the new High Commissioner.)
For many years this portrait gazed imposingly from the back of the School stage at school assemblies. In 1963 the Old Queen was hung prominently at the front of the curtain when the VIOBA held a dinner in the school hall to celebrate the School's seventieth birthday. Not long after that, the portrait was removed from tthe back of the stage. It now hangs in a back room of the V.I. Library.
The Oil Portrait
Today, few looking up at the painting are aware of the poignant story behind its conception - an oil portrait commissioned by the highest British officer of the land almost fifty years ago to honour a Queen who had ruled until exactly fifty years before that; an immigrant Javanese artist who copied, enlarged and embellished the image from a miniature engraving and who would later become one of the country's most revered artists; and a brutal assassination in a hill resort that denied the giver the pleasure of personally delivering it.
Last update on 19 December 2015.