A Royal treasure: the Javanese Batik collection of King Chulalongkorn of Siam

 

Informative booklet given at the entrance of the Exhibition: A Royal Treasure. The Javanese Batik Collection of King Chulalongkorn of Siam . Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

All began in 1910. His Majesty King Chulalongkorn of Siam had passed away. His possessions were carefully kept in the Treasury of the Inner Court of the Grand Palace. More than a century later those trunks, which had remained unkown and unseen for over 100 years, were opened. A treasure was discovered: a whole collection of Javanese Batiks, all of them in excellent state of conservation. Incredibly, they had survived the pass of time. Just extraordinary….

In the late 1800s, Siam began to open toward the west. It was King Mongut, Rama IV, who saw the necessity of it. Therefore, economic and political relationships between Siam and the western countries, started to be strengthened. King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, continued his father’s task convinced that the future and survival of Siam as an independent kingdom depended of its openess and adaptation to modern needs. But, differently from his father, he travelled abroad, to Europe. He wanted to see by himself how the poweful western countries were governed. For him, as it had been for his father, was a political necessity.

Looking for ways for the modenization of Siam, before going to Europe, His Majesty made an official visit to Singapore and Java. It was 1871 and he was 18 years old. This was the first time a reigning king of Siam had traveled outside of the kingdom or any of its dependencies.The King was especially interested in knowing all about the recent inovations carried out in these countries, as the new rail line between Batavia and Semarang. In addition, King Chulalongkorn had a personal interest in the shared Hindu-Buddhist heritage of Indonesia and Siam.

According to the information given at the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, it was apparent that His Majesty was fascinated with batik as soon as he saw it. Then, over the course of his other – non official visits carried out in 1896 and 1901, the King developed a love for the art of batik, which led him to build a collection showing the remarkable diversity of this quintessntially Javanese art form.

It was in 2014 when the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles was granted permission to research and organize an exhibition to tell the story of HM King Chulalongkorn’s travels in Java and his fascination with Javanese culture, especially batik. The museum’s curators started to work relentlessly and after four years  the exhibition is opened to the public for first time revealing King Rama V’s extraordinary legacy. A Royal Treasure.

As one thing brings the other, all began with a special guided visit organized by the Thai Textile Society to see the exhibition, which I had missed. Although Denise had attended this tour, she would go again with gusto. So we did. Fantastic.

When we entered the exhibition room, we were just shocked. Not only for the magnificence of the pieces of batik in display , but at the sight of their excellent state of conservation. No one would say that those fabrics had been storaged without nobody knowing about their existence. No one.
And that literally means without having any special preservation treatment for over a century. No one.
Just uncredible. Amazing.

We stayed a long time observing, trying to absorb the beauty of each one of those pieces, their patterns and designs. We learn, by reading the informative tags, that their different designs represent the styles of the Central Javanese Principalities and the multicultural styles of Java’s north coast ports which were strongly affected by the international maritime trade. That’s the main reason why we saw batiks with designs of clearly Indian and Chinese influences.

The more we read, the more enthusiatic we became trying to discover on the batik’s designs the details described in the given information. But there was something that called our, well, mine attention at least: Art Nouveau – flowers, lacy borders on some of the Javanese batiks’ designs, which are, beyond doubt, western motifs.

The explanation for that is simple, if we think a little bit about it. During the course of the 18th century, the Dutch United India Company (VOC) had established itself as the dominating economic and political power on Java. What meant that the officers came along with their families , and those  women would have preferred to keep wearing cloth with an European design. So, to fill that necessity, and may be to occupied their time, some of them owned and run workshops dedicated to producing Javanese batik but with European influence in their design.

Among them, it is noticiable the case of Mrs Jans (c 1850-c1920) a Dutch woman, born in Java, who owned a popular and prolific workshop from which His Majesty bought eight pieces in 1901. An interesting detail is that she was the first to sign her pieces in 1870s, and 20 years later following her example, nealrly all batiks were signed by the Eurasian workshop owners in the coastal towns.

Her pieces were expensive, but her clients were Dutch women who came to the Indies with their husbands, and wished to wear sarung ( a short tubular hip wrap) and kebaya ( traditional blouse-dress usually wore with the sarung) at home to stay cool, but preferred fabrics with an European design.Those designs had clean backgrounds and birds, bouquets and similar imaginary which came from European embroidery books or, prior to that, from Indian chintz which inspired European printed cottons which also had florals and pristine backgrounds.

We saw a particularly spectacular batik made for a European client with a bird – of – paradise in its design, the feathers of which were especially popular in European women’s hats between 1890 and 1910.
And then, one of the highlights of the collection is a superb sarung, with the Pomegranate – flower pattern, eyelet lace and paisleys, a very popular textile design throughout the 19th century for an elegant, wealthy European or Indo – European woman. Because of the way in which this particular piece is arranged, you are able to appreciate its front and back, with just walking around it. Fantastic.

An impressive exhibition. Some pieces of batik are just stunning. For their beauty. For the  delicacy and intricacy of the diminutive details in their designs. Knowing how hand – made batik is produced, a work that implies successive layers of waxing, dyeing, boiling to melting the wax, repeating this process which each one of the colours until getting the final design, we couldn’t help but thinking how skilled, how naturally gifted those people should have been.

Sadly, visitors are not allowed to take pictures, so we have to content ourselves with our memories….or just going again. Luckely enough, we will have time for more visits. The exhibition will remain open until May of 2021.  But due to space limitations, the display of the batiks will be rotated, so we won’t see the same pieces all the time… What means that we have to go in different occasions to be able to appreciatte the whole collection… Which in turn means that we have an excellent excuse to go to Bangkok more often, more than once…

As history repeats itself, all began with our visit to HM King Chulalongkorn’s collection of Javanese batiks when all of a sudden, as in a dream, I found myself in the Dana Hadir Museum of Batik in Solo, Java. We had gone in 2013 when it was my turn to be fascinated with the Javanese batiks.At first sight. The variety of their designs which changed accordingly to each geographical region, made me realised of how vast, diverse and rich Java’s culture was.

I remember now, six years later, our Javanese guide telling us that such and such particular batiks were taken back to Siam by its monarch, HM King Chulalongkorn, never thinking that one day I would be standing in front of them. Life gives you surprises, doesn’t it?

The second part of the visit to the Dana Hadir Museum, consisted in touring the ‘backstage’ where the worldwide –  known Solo batiks were produced. Seeing those women and men doing that painstakingly, admirable handwork with such skill, was just amazing. We were left, for once, speechless…

Coming back from my memories, walking out of the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, with the few things bought at Museum’s shop, already in our bags, we started to look for the closest coffee shop. It was time for savouring a good, strong expresso while trying to assimilate all what we had just seeing and enjoyed. And the story behind it.

What a magic afternoon. A wonderful company, a surprisingly memorable legacy of one of Siam’s most beloved monarchs and the Chao Phraya river, in all its majesty, just in front of us.
Could we ask for more?…

 

At the entrance of the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles we were given an informative booklet, These images belong to it…

 

 

Sadly, visitors are not allowed to take pictures of the King Chulalongkorn’s batik collection, we have to content ourselves with our memories… or see the pictures published in The Nation’s website …

Batik from laem Chinese landscape plants birds butterflies . Photo Credit: The Nation

Batiks from Carolina Josephina von Franquemont worshop in Semarang. Photo Credit: The Nation

Sirik batik from Yogyakarta was named in honour to Her Majesty Queen Sirikit during her state visit with King Bhumibol in 1960. Foto Credit: The Nation

 

All of a sudden, as in a dream, I found myself in the Dana Hadir Museum of Batik in Solo, Java, where we had gone in 2013… Photo Credit: Silvia Muda

 

The second part of the visit to the Dana Hadir Museum, consisted in touring the ‘backstage’ where the worldwide known – Solo batiks were produced. It was then when we learnt how hand – made batik is produced: a work that implies successive layers of waxing, dyeing, boiling to melting the wax, repeating this process which each one of the colours until getting the final design…

 

Seeing those women and men doing that painstakingly, admirable handwork with such skill, was just amazing. We were left, for once, speechless…

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Argentine, civil engineer by profession, ex-city planner by choice, amateur photographer and travel writer by chance; without speaking any English, I moved into Pattaya because of my husband's job in March 2003, along with our fifteen -years old son. With great conviction, will power and a great group of friends, those hard times are part of the past. Slowly, I started to find my own space, to recognize and feel Pattaya as my own city, I started to have a ...home, so far from Home.

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