AN UNFINISHED painting of Mr and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew in their youth was among six rescued by artist Tan Swie Hian early Tuesday when fire broke out in a studio two doors away from his.
Although his studio was untouched by the blaze at the Telok Kurau Studios, the 2.9m by 5.6m rolled-up oil painting entitled A Couple was partially soaked by water used by the firefighters.
"The painting has gone through the baptism of fire," Mr Tan, 69, said wryly in Mandarin. "After this incident, I'll speed up my work and try to finish it soon," he added.
Last month, his work, When The Moon is Orbed, sold for a record $3.7 million, making him Singapore's most expensive living artist.
He started working on the portrait of the former prime minister and his late wife on Valentine's Day in 2009. The Cultural Medallion winner picked an iconic black-and-white photograph of the young couple posing in Cambridge University in 1946.
Mr Tan recalled hearing Mrs Lee say once how she stood one step behind her husband as a traditional Asian wife. That left an impression on him.
When she died in October 2010 at the age of 89, he wrote a 240-word Chinese poem in her memory. He has incorporated that into the painting for "an extra dimension".
It took longer than usual to do the painting as he needed to imagine the colours from the black- and-white photograph, and sim- plify the background.
His biggest challenge was making out the expression on Mrs Lee's face because of the shadow cast on it in the photograph.
He is planning to exhibit the painting in his private Tan Swie Hian Museum in Geylang when it is completed.
"It's not for sale," he said.