Pieces of silver

Pieces of silver

A new exhibition at an old palace provides a treat for culture lovers this weekend

Left MR Narisa Chakrabongse. Tawatchai Kemgumnerd
Left MR Narisa Chakrabongse. Tawatchai Kemgumnerd

One of Bangkok's grandest villas, once the private residence of princes, will be open to the public on Dec 15 and 16 for the "Unique Silver And Nielloware Exhibition At Chakrabongse House". As the name suggests, the exhibition features a stunning collection of silver and nielloware, as part of the release of a new book celebrating Thailand's rich heritage in these crafts. This is also a rare opportunity to visit the magnificent riverside villa of Chakrabongse House, opposite Wat Pho.

Thai Silver And Nielloware by Paul Bromberg is a sumptuous illustrated guide to the history and craftsmanship of these objects, featuring over 400 photographs. The exhibition has been curated by MR Narisa Chakrabongse, CEO of River Books and owner of Chakrabongse House, and River Books executive Paisarn Piemmettawat.

MR Narisa Chakrabongse. Tawatchai Kemgumnerd

"We will feature more than 100 pieces of silverware -- about 50 from here, another 50 from Bromberg and some 17 others from Paisarn," said MR Narisa. "One of the masterpieces is a khan sakhon [big-footed nielloware basin] depicting characters from the Ramakien. You will be able to see many pieces from the royal court, especially nielloware."

The setting of the exhibition at Chakrabongse House means visitors will have a chance to visit the residence at the centre of the books Koet Wang Parusaka (Born At Parusakawan Palace) and Katya And The Prince Of Siam by Prince Chula Chakrabongse, two of the most popular accounts of royal life. History buffs and culture vultures will be able to cherish the beautiful interior of the Western-style villa. Attendees will also receive a copy of the new book.

According to Paisarn, the khan sakhon on view dates to the reign of King Rama II and depicts his royal emblem, the garuda in combat with the naga, as well as the monkey warrior Hanuman and demon king Thotsakan from the Ramakien. A supreme display of craftsmanship, it features handles in the shape of an elephant's head instead of the more common tiger's head. This piece is a fine example of the sophisticated art of the royal court.

Other must-see items include the silver toys owned by Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanadh, King Rama V's 40th son, and his son Prince Chula Chakrabongse (MR Narisa's grandfather and father, respectively), as well as the silver dinnerware bearing the royal emblem of Queen Saovabha Phongsri of King Chulalongkorn.

Paul Bromberg, the author of the book, is the serving editor of the Journal Of The Siam Society and a contributing editor to Arts Of Asia magazine. According to the book, the craftsmanship and design of Thai silver and nielloware rivals that of better-known varieties of Asian silver. However, there has to date been little written on the subject.

John Guy, senior curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, had this to say of the book: "Our understanding and appreciation of Thai silver, and its close relative nielloware, has made a major step forward with Paul Bromberg's comprehensive study, the first English language publication to rigorously explore the origins of these Sino-Thai silver-working traditions. The Siamese mission to Louis XIV's court at Versailles in 1686 presented Chinese silverware as part of their diplomatic gifts, marking the beginnings of a documented history of Chinese silverware as part of Siamese court etiquette.

Thai Silver And Nielloware by Paul Bromberg.

"A strong Siamese silver-working tradition emerged over the following centuries, centred principally on the Chinese quarters of 19th century Bangkok. Now that tradition is fading from sight, this book is a timely and valuable record of these luxury goods of the Siamese court and mercantile culture."

Bromberg examines the history and scope of Thai silverware production and its various forms and designs, with particular focus on objects produced for utilitarian purposes from the early to mid-19th century onwards because earlier examples are very difficult to find.

According to the book, the use of silverware became more widespread during the late Ayutthaya period (18th century) among royals and the nobility, likely due to an increased supply of silver from Spanish America. Silver cutlery and tableware were often used during banquets, while gifts made of silver were presented to visiting dignitaries and foreign royals. Therefore, silver was widely regarded as a highly valued commodity for lower ranking nobility, officials and ordinary people while gold was the usual choice for royalty and higher-ranking nobility.

Bromberg's book discusses the history, production, usage and decline of silverware in Thailand. It also explores Thai nielloware, a localised version of silverware on which there has been little focus to date. The forms and functions of various types of Thai silverware and the designs and motifs that commonly adorn the objects are examined at length. The book is also very informative about artefacts, collectibles and commemorative items made for the royal court.

Bromberg's research showed that Chinese silverware was among the diplomatic gifts presented by the Ayutthaya Kingdom's King Narai to Louis XIV during the Siamese mission. Other Siamese monarchs followed suit, including King Rama V, who gave silverware as diplomatic presents to the United States.

"Siamese silversmiths possessed excellent craftsmanship, especially in the reign of King Rama V," said MR Narisa. "Thai niellloware has a long history. I think it's very important to keep it alive. Classic motifs are kanok ploei [flames] and thepphanom [angels paying respect]."

She said that the exhibition has been organised because there have been few such exhibitions in Thailand and because the new book had given her a renewed appreciation of her family's silverware collection, which she had previously paid little attention to.

"Thai silverware is beautiful. If people know more about it, they will be proud of it," MR Narisa said. "Nielloware reflects Thai uniqueness. The show will feature about 40 pieces of nielloware from Nakhon Si Thammarat. The oldest piece is around 150 years old."

Thai Silver And Nielloware by Paul Bromberg.

This khan sakhon (big-footed nielloware basin), depicting images from the Ramakien, is one of several masterpieces on show.

Silver dinnerware bearing the royal emblem of Queen Saovabha Phongsri.

More than 100 silverware and nielloware objects will also be on display.

Chakrabongse House.

The "Unique Silver And Nielloware Exhibition At Chakrabongse House" exhibition will be held at Chakrabongse Villas on Dec 15 and 16. Tickets are 1,500 baht and include house entry and a copy of Thai Silver And Nielloware (value 1,200 baht). Only 150 places are available per day. Viewings take place at 10.30am, noon, 1.30pm, 3pm and 4.30pm. Reservations are required (tel. 086-987-0493 or 084-794-6034 only). Visit riverbooksbk.com for more information.


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