Royalty and Religion: Photographs of Late Nineteenth-Century Thailand
13 January – 26 May 2014
View of stupas in Bangkok 1924.52.39
The twelve albumen prints shown in this display are part of a set of fifty-seven relating to Siam (present day Thailand) given to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1924 by George H. Grindrod. The collection mostly shows royal buildings and religious sites in the capital Bangkok, but also includes street and river views and a number of portraits. Grindrod had bought the set of prints (which show signs of having been removed from an album) in 1892 whilst living in Bangkok from a Henry Worsley Rolfe, sometime tutor to the King of Siam’s children, and headmaster of the prestigious Suankulap School.
Portrait of a royal prince, before the hair-cutting ceremony
Information recorded by the Museum in 1924 suggests that Grindrod believed them to have been taken by Rolfe’s predecessor at Suankulap School. Whilst it is not impossible that some of them may have been taken by a skilled amateur, the subject matter, privileged access to certain locations (in particular royal and religious buildings), and the quality, uniform size and mounting of the prints all suggest that they are the work of a professional photographer or studio. The most likely source of the prints is G. R. Lambert & Co., which was established in Singapore in 1867 and flourished in the last two decades of the century, offering ‘one of the finest collections of landscape views of the East’, and in 1881 advertising themselves as ‘Photographers to H. M. the King of Siam’.
Buddhist monks in a courtyard in Bangkok 1924.52.42Presumably taken sometime in the 1880s, the subject matter of the collection, with its focus on the architectural grandeur of the royal and religious buildings of Bangkok, as well as portraits of the royal family, was commercially aimed at a colonial audience keen to collect exotic scenes of the country. But the range of images also suggests how Siam was mostly perceived in the West, as a deeply hierarchical and religious society where such things as slavery and debt-bondage were commonplace (see image, ‘debt slaves in chains’).
Four men in a teak yard, ‘debt slaves in chains’ 1924.52.43
Although thus portrayed as an elaborate and traditional society, Siam in the 1870s and ’80s was in fact a society in the midst of reform and Westernisation. King Chulalongkorn, who reigned from 1868 as Rama V, had been educated by the English governess Anna Leonowens–immortalized in Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam, and later the 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I–had begun a series of political and social changes intended to transform the country into a modern nation state, including the gradual abolition of slavery and debt-bondage.
Thai actors performing 1924.52.57
To view more images from this collection visit the Pitt Rivers' Photograph and Manuscript Collections blog