The Restoration Of The First Great House Of Penang, Suffolk House

Restoration and conservation works are currently being carried out to restore Suffolk House, dubbed the first great house of Penang, to its former glory. The grandeur of Suffolk House and its grounds has been captured and immortalised in the romantic painting of 1818 by William Daniel, "View of Suffolk House, Prince of Wales Island" in which the beautiful and stately mansion stands amidst imposing trees and verdant greenery with looming hills in the background. In addition, the double-storey building, of magnificent Anglo-Indian architecture, is situated along the banks of the Air Itam river. Thus , it was not surprising that in its heyday, Suffolk House and Estate were favourite subjects for artists.

However, the origins of the mansion are still the subject of much dispute. Did Sir Francis Light, the founder of Penang, build Suffolk House in the early 1790s or did the subsequent governor, William Edward Phillips, build it in 1809? This debate of who built the house dates back to as early as 1929 when historian F. G. Stevens, commonly accepted as one of the foremost authorities on the early development of Penang, first discounted Light as the original owner of Suffolk House and asserted that Phillips had built it instead. In his article "A Contribution to the early history of Prince of Wales Island", he pointed out that the road to the house from Air Itam Road was "only lined out but not made" in 1807, thus discounting the possibility that the house could have been built before then. However, those who differed from this contention claimed that Light's will which bequeathed to his wife "the pepper gardens with my garden house, plantations and all the land by me cleared in the part of this island called Suffolk..." proved that he was the one who built the house.

Who built the mansion is not as important as its heritage value and so, the state government and HSBC have contributed RM2 million each towards the RM5.5 million restoration project. The remaining RM1.5 million must come from other donors. So far, only about RM850,000 worth of pledges have been made by individuals and corporations.

According to architect Laurence Loh of Arkitek LLA Sdn. Bhd., who is overseeing the project, the restoration is more than 80% completed. He said that the double-storey building, of Euro-Indian form based primarily on Georgian architecture is one of its kind in Malaysia and even in South-East Asia. Efforts are being made to conserve and restore the building back to its most significant form as portrayed in the 1818 painting of William Daniel. In the effort to create an ambience of the early days of Penang, replica furniture of the original period will be featured in the living room on the ground floor and original early paintings of Penang from 1802 to 1860 will be displayed in the main gallery on the first floor. In addition, plants, dating back to that period will be part of the landscape surrounding the mansion.

Congratulations to all concerned in this restoration of Suffolk House - the Penang state government, HSBC, the corporate and individual donors, Penang Heritage Trust, Laurence Loh and all those craftsmen and labourers involved in the actual restoration work.

Posted: Wed - August 16, 2006 at 07:07 PM