“On his final journey through the Far East in 1960, Somerset Maugham was a guest for dinner at Jim Thompson’s Thai house, then less than a year old. In the brief thank-you note to his host he wrote:
“You have not only beautiful things, but what is rare you have arranged them with faultless taste.” William Warren, The House on the Klong, 1999.
In his new home, Thompson displayed beautifully his collection of old Thai paintings, Buddhist sculpture, Chinese blue and white and various objets d’art. In general, the display of the collection remains the same as it was in Jim Thompson’s time. Only the old pantry and servants quarters have been converted into exhibition pavilions in order to display benjarong ceramics, small objects and paintings.
Thompson has been a collector of Thai antiques since 1946. At that time, the antiquities of Southeast Asia were little known in the West, except for within a small circle of art experts and museums. In Thailand itself, such possessions were within the realm of only a few wealthy Chinese families and the nobility. Thompson considered his collection as one way of preserving a few of the country’s treasures from possible loss and destruction and wanted to leave his house with his collections to the Thais.
“The collection has great originality both due to its diversity and the taste it reflects.”
Jean-Michel Beurdeley, The House on the Klong, 1999.
Sculpture had once been the most important part of the collection. Thompson was able to acquire rare pieces like the Dvaravadi torso displayed in the study and a monumental sandstone head of the U-Thong school.
Dvaravadi, Lopburi and Ayutthaya styles
“Clothed in the robe of a monk, the Buddha held a flap of the robe in his left hand. The gentle outline of the hips give a remarkable impression of movement.” Dvaravadi School, dating from the late 7th or 8th century AD, found at Lopburi Province in Central Thailand.
Bust of Buddha in brown limestone. “The wide face with a strong nose and fleshy lips, round eyes and arched and joined eyebrows are very characteristic of the Dvaravadi school.” Dvaravadi School, 8th century AD.
“The hairstyle is of small curls topped by a flame-decorated ornament. A wide face with a strong chin, a wide mouth, slightly arched brows, and half-closed eyes.” Ayutthaya school, U-Thong style, end of the 13th century AD.
Buddha meditating on the Naga. ”The thoughtful face, with closed eyes, reveals this to be an example of the Bayon art.” Lopburi School, 13th century AD.
Srivijaya, Ayutthaya, Lopburi and Burmese Styles
Head of Surya, the Hindu sun-god, with large conical headdress; the face is flat and surrounded by a discus incised with lines representing the sun rays. Found in Thailand, 8th-9th century AD.
“Ardhanari, a Brahmin god representing Siva in half-male, half female form, symbolizes the union of masculine and feminine energies.” Lopburi School, similar to the Khmer style of Koh Ker, 11th century. Found in Lopburi province, central Thailand.
One of the four wooden figures of Burmese spirits, which came from near Amarapura in Burma. These figures were given to Thompson when he went to Burma as an official guest in the 1950s. Late 18th century.
The traditional Thai paintings were among the first works of art to catch Thompson attention. This art form, largely unknown in the West, was in danger of being extinct in Thailand itself. He purchased most of his paintings collection before he moved to his new home in 1959 and sent a group of his best paintings on a tour of American museums. The paintings are on cloth, paper and wood; most are on cotton and range from fairly small to tapestry size.
Often such work of art would be commissioned by devout Buddhists hoping to earn merit by presenting a gift to the temple.
Monks were the artists for the religious paintings. The subject of the religious paintings in Thailand is largely limited to the life of Buddha and the last ten Jatakas, Tosachat, the stories of Buddha’s previous births. The Jatakas illustrate the virtues by which the future Buddha perfected himself and finally achieved enlightenment. They are used for teaching and as a subject for painting. The last Jataka, known in Thailand as the Mahachat, or Great Birth, tells the story of Prince Vessantara who displays the virtue of perfect charity.
Ref: “The Tosachat in Thai Painting” by Elizabeth Lyons (1963)
The Life of Buddha
Phra Bot, sacred cloth, and paintings, Bangkok School.
The Birth of Buddha; Queen Mahamaya is standing under a tree and holding on a branch, giving birth to Gautama Buddha, in Lumpini. On the right side, the new born prince is surrounded by Indra, colored in green, and an angel. Bangkok School, mid 19th century.
Buddha returns to Kapilavatthu; the seated Buddha is preaching to his father and is in a meditative pose; he is surrounded by his disciples before the King and the court. Bangkok School, second-half 19th century.
Thai Religious Tales
Vessantara Jataka and Phra Malai.
A set of thirteen paintings on cloth illustrates each one of the thirteen episodes the Vessantara Jataka. The fine workmanship and coloring, the painted frame of leaves and flowers that surrounds each painting show great elegance.
Twelfth episode, Chakasat; The reunion of the King Sanjaya and Pusati, Vessantara, Madsi together with the children, Jali and Kahna, shows them weeping with joy at being reunited. While no facial expression is used in this art, the iconographic symbol of weeping is the right hand curved over the eye. Bangkok School, mid-19th century. See more at Google Arts & Culture
An illustration of the thirtieth episode of the Vessantara Jataka, Nakhonkan, or the triumphant return from exile of Prince Vessantara to the Kingdom of Siva. This painting comes from the ancient northern kingdom of Lanna, now Chiang Mai province. First-half 19th century.
The legend of Phra Malai, a buddhist saint known for his travels to heaven and hell, figures prominently in Thai religious treatises. He is traditionally represented wearing the saffron robe, and holding a fan. On this painting, he visits the underworld in his quest for saving the mankind from sin and hell. Second-half of 19th century.
Thai Folklore, Village scenes, Horoscope
The old gardener’s house, has been converted in a picture gallery where are displayed among other paintings, the Chandler’s collection, a complete set of Brahman Jati Horoscope, as well as folded illuminated manuscripts from the late 19th – early 20th century.
Dr. J.H. Chandler, an American missionary and an American consul to Thailand commissioned a collection of paintings in the early 1860s while serving in Bangkok. The paintings depict everyday scenes of the traditional Thai way of life such as threshing rice, activities in the village market place, children playing, gathering coconuts, and even childbirth. The titles are in Dr. Chandler’s handwriting.
Brahman Jati, the Siamese horoscope; here the year of the dog. A complete set of twelve astrological signs is displayed at the museum. Second-half of 19th century.
Cockfight at the village. Late 19th – early 20th century.
Thompson in general has collected old Khmer jars and Thai ceramics from the Sukhothai period, however, his interest in porcelains began to evolve in the early 60’s, a period which marks a turning point for his collection.
Benjarong & Lainamthong
Ceramics made in China for the Thai royalties
The name benjarong in Thai originates from the Sanskrit words paunch meaning five and rang meaning colors. It refers to a special classification of fine porcelain featuring various traditional Thai design elements presented as a composition of the five primary colors: red, blue, green, yellow and black. These were made in China based on designs supplied by Thai artists and produced exclusively for export to Thailand. Such production of benjarong started in the 17th century during the Ayutthaya period and continued until the 19th century.
In 1963, Jim Thompson purchased an important collection of benjarong. Here, a covered bowl with a black background decorated with thepanom and mythical animals. Late 18th – early 19th century.
A collection of three toh jars, with polychrome floral designs on a red-orange background, yellow and grey bands with floral scrolls around the rims. Early – mid 19th century.
Large covered bowl with gold knob rim and green foot rim, gold flowers, green foliage and birds on white background. Late 18th – early 19th century.
A Sino-Thai porcelain with gold background, or lai nam thong. It is delicately ornamented with flowers, leaves and birds”. Early – mid 19th century.
Blue & White Ceramics
From China and Annam
The Chinese collection features items ranging from the Sung Dynasty to the 19th century. The majority are the Ming period blue and white export ware. Several pieces originate from Ayutthaya where they were imported from China during the 15th – 17th centuries.
A collection of Annamese blue and white. 15th -17th century.
A collection of Chinese blue and white. 14th – 17th century.
A collection of Sino-Thai blue and white. Second half 19th century.
Chinese & Siamese Artistry
Detail of a temple screen in wood, covered with dark green glass mosaic which was originally inlaid with 450 little buddha ornaments outlined in gold glass. Dated 19th century.
Detail of a double door carved with the coiling foliate design named kranok khankot.
Mother-of-pearl motif inlaid on black lacquer; detail from a table displayed in the dining room. Dated 19th century.
The Mouse House: “A fanciful little structure that was made by 19th-century Chinese carvers to house pet white mice.”
Ann Donaldson Donations
Mrs Ann Donaldson, daughter of Jim Thompson’s sister Elinor Douglas, generously donated four large Burmese hangings, or shwe chi doe, as well as two wooden figures of Burmese spirits to the James H.W. Thompson Foundation. These valuable objects are prominently displayed in The Silk Pavilion, a single old Thai house located adjacent to the klong within the museum compound.
When Jim Thompson was invited to visit Burma in the early 1950s to help revive the country’s silk industry he became intrigued with shwe chi doe, gold thread embroidered tapestries that were popular in the former Burmese courts. He commissioned U Khin, a renowned Burmese artist, to create replicas of these exquisite wall hangings.
Jim Thompson sent the decorative hangings to the United States on a traveling exhibit. Although the show was a success, the project did not continue due to the political situation in Burma at the time.
Credits: William Warren, Luca Invernezzi Tettoni, Jean-Michel Beurdeley, William Klausner, The House on the Klong, Archipelago Press, 1999