Bencharon Journey: from China to Siam

The tittle  called my attention:  ‘Bencharon Journey: from China to Siam’. It was  an article dedicated to a rare Bencharon  exhibition. Over 150 pieces of Bencharon  and related objects in other materials made exclusively for Siam in the 18th and 19th centuries had been assembled from private collections, including items housed at Chakrabongse Palace, and galleries exclusively for this event which was the first to be held in Thailand since 1977. The event is curated by ceramics historian Dawn F. Rooney, who is also a scholar and art historian specializing in Southeast Asia and who had wrote nine books on the art and culture of the region.

A Bencharon collection, a whole Bencharon collection from the 18th and 19th century…and it was opened to the public. To the general public. I just couldn’t believe what my eyes were reading. A part of Thai history. A treasure. We should go, I thought. I can’t miss this. As the following Monday would be a public holiday, we went to Bangkok. My husband and myself. Fantastic.

We took the boat at Saphan Taksin Pier and get off at  pier Number 3, turned left heading toward  River City complex, where the exhibition was held. ‘Auction Room, fourth floor’, the article had mentioned. Easy to recognize, impossible to miss.’Yes, you can take pictures, Madam…no flash, please’… Fantastic, again.  Four rooms where the Bencharon items were exhibited in all their splendour. Smartly and professionally done, concise and clear information giving the historical background of each one of the groups of pieces completed the exhibition. Impressive.  Reading those boards, our own journey began.

The journey started, as it would have been expected, where all began. So, we read  how the  trade and diplomatic relations between China and Siam  developed, from its early start in the  13th century in the  Sukhothai kingdom all through  Ayutthaya’s time, reaching  the 15th century when China, needing to expand, sent South its  fleet of ‘Treasure Ships’  laden by enticing Chinese porcelains which rapidly became coveted in Southeast Asia. And that was only the beginning..

Following the chronological order the first porcelain pieces that we saw neatly  displayed were beautiful covered  jars not of made of Bencharon, as we  expected, but of the blue – and – white underglaze porcelain. First surprise. Reading the  information, we learnt that this was the earliest Chinese exported ware ordered with specific Siamese  design, a dense floral pattern, which was immensely popular at the court of Ayutthaya in the 1700s. But then came 1767 and Ayuthaya fell at the hands of the  Burmese army.

It is fascinating to see how everything is intertwined with everything. Siam had  lost its great capital, and with it, the Chinese imports came to a stop. But soon a new capital would be established to the south,  at Thonburi, on the east bank  the Chao Phraya. The Chinese, who had settled and prospered in the northern capital, followed general Taksin, Thonburi’s founder, and made the new capital their home…and their business.
Only to move again at the beginning of the Chakri dynasty, when King Rama I founded Bangkok, as the new capital of  Siam, on the west bank of the Chao Phraya, in 1871. They crossed the river with their belongings, hopes and craftsman skills…

Continuing with the Bencharon journey, during the time Siam, guided by Rama I, was trying to organize and settle itself as the capital of the kingdom, European orders for Chinese porcelain with customised forms and motifs were flourishing in.
The Siamese, following this trend, starting to order Bencharon  which had  also special decoration: Chinese Bencharon with designs exclusively for the Chakri dynasty. In this way, Bencharon entered the historic trade of Chinese export ware by  the end of the 18th century and which  would flourish during the 19th century during Rama II and Rama III’s reigns.

Waking the successive rooms of the exhibition was just an extraordinary experience. At last I was able to see, to appreciate, those Bencharon pieces and sets that I’d heard of or read about. How many times I had been told, in relation to a particular beautiful piece : ‘it would  pale in comparison with the ‘old’ ones, the ones imported from China, Madam’. I just couldn’t believe them. It couldn’t be possible. But while  witnessing the beauty, the delicacy of every one of those small details, of those motifs charged with symbolism, of those  hand made – three or four – pieces sets, internally I agreed with them. Yes, they were right.

Advancing a little bit into the exhibition we stood in front of ‘the covered family’, which were pieces that varied  in shape, size and decoration motifs more than any other group. What means that they were used in different areas of the palace life. Some might have been for containing liquids, others dry foods. Some were small, round pots with elaborate, tiered covers studded with gems and a tapered gold knobs which  were the favourite of the palace women and were used for containing cosmetics, oils, powders, and chewing ingredients. Im-pre-ssive.

Here we should make an special mention of the  Lai Nam Thong (Thai name that means ‘gold wash’) ware, which is a variant of Bencharon. As the name suggests, gold is applied to this specific ware and it was used only by royalty. So, the quality of the porcelain and the workmanship on the decorations of the Lai Nam Thong wares are generally excellent, as the ones exhibited.

The golden age of Lai Nam Thong  appeared in the first half of the 19th century ( slightly after Bencharon) and corresponds to the reigns of King Rama II and King Rama III (1809 -1851). Although it might seem redundant to say, its only distinguishing feature is the addition of gold otherwise, the forms and decoration are similar to Bencharon. We could see exquisite bowls, jars, stem plates and spittoons which express the taste of the Chakri dynasty and reflect the prosperity of the period.

We kept waking around the rooms until we stop dead in front of  several pairs and whole sets  of Bencharon pieces. The very well called ‘Survivors’, simply because  in those times the journey by sea from China to Siam was  done on uncharted and rough waters and since the Bencharon’s fragility they were easily chipped or just broken. Therefore, to find  surviving  pairs are rare, but whole  sets is just  even rarer. Reading the information, we knew that we were standing in front of  the  largest group of pairs and sets ever shown in public. We started to realized just then, how lucky we were of being there.

I stayed glued to the spot staring at them. Click…Click. My camera. The only sound in the room. These pieces were exceptional, not only for surviving the 18th – century journey from China in hazardous conditions, but because of the handicraft needed to decorate them. Anyone, even without being a scholar or specialist, would know that  the workmanship is just remarkable. Every flower, every figure was hand-painted, yet the artisans were able to create not just one, but two, and sometimes, three or four identical pieces. Just extraordinary. My husband had already walked into the other room. I was left behind just taking pictures. Speechless. For once.

But those magnificent sets were not the only surprise of the exhibition. Enameled copper – wares were produced in China in the 18th and 19th centuries, making them contemporary with Bencharon. Some aspects of the technology differ, of course, because of the material, but both underwent two firings and are believed to have been enameled in the same locations: namely Guangzhou and surrounding areas.
The similarities between enameled copper – wares and Bencharon are numerous, including forms, motifs, colours placement, and density of decoration. There were on display a selection of boxes, stem plates, vases and small jars that were used by the Siamese royalty, aristocracy and the monastic community. Extraordinary.

But, as everything is changing and interwoven in life, the story and development of the kingdom wasn’t an exception. Trade treaties, missions and diplomacy between Siam  and Europe from the 1850s ( during the reign of Rama IV) onwards led to a growing relationship between the two. It was in these circumstances that King Chulalongkorn’s trip to Europe in 1887 marked a shift in the taste of the court towards the consumption of western goods…

That was what we read on the board. What we saw on display was the result of that trend: Chinese export wares showing forms and motifs mixed and matched in innovative ways: a fusion of Siamese or Chinese forms with European decoration. Or, in the other way around : glazed, white porcelain background with clearly Western motifs as flowers, fireflies, scrolls and sags on a Siamese or Chinese form were very common.

And that marked the beginning of the end of Bencharon journey  from China, which had initiated  in the late 18th century. But it didn’t mean  the end of Bencharon in Siam. Since then, the whole production of Bencharon started to be made  locally, thanks to the workmanship and extraordinary skills of Siamese artisans…

‘I’m downstairs, in the café on the deck, looking the river’. A message from my husband came in. Our journey, as if accompanying the journey that Bencharon had done, had found its end. I left the exhibition room loaded with images, stories, and luckily enough, scores of photos. It has been a wonderful afternoon. A rich one.  An enriching one.
Downstairs on the deck,  overlooking the Chao Phraya, the river of Kings, a strong expresso was waiting…A perfect ending for a special afternoon.

Now, lets follow the story through pictures…

‘….We took the boat which would leave us at the pier Number 3, and headed toward  River City, where the exhibition was held. Auction Room, fourth floor, the article had mentioned. So we started our way up…

Blue and white porcelain, the earliest Chinese export ware ordered with specific Siamese  design, a dense floral pattern, which was immensely popular at the court of Ayutthaya in the 1700s.

We were standing in front of ‘the covered family’, which were pieces that vary in shape, size and decoration more than any other group. What means that they were used in different areas of the palace life…

 

Lai Nam Thong, a Thai name that means ‘gold wash’, is a variant of Bencharon. As the name suggests, gold is applied to Lai Nam Thong ware and it was used only by royalty…

 

These are the ‘Survivors’, simply because  in those times the journey by sea from China to Siam was  done on uncharted and rough waters and due to the Bencharon’s fragility they were easily chipped or just broken. Therefore, to find  surviving  pairs are rare, but whole  sets is just  even rarer…

 

The similarities between enameled copper – wares and Bencharon are numerous, including forms, motifs, colours placement, and density of decoration. There were on display a selection of boxes, stem plates, vases and small jars that were used by Siamese royalty, aristocracy and the monastic community…

 

It was in those circumstances  that King Chulalongkorn’s trip to Europe in 1887  marked  a shift in the taste of the court towards the consumption of western goods…It is so that Chinese export wares adapted adopted forms and motifs mixed and matched in innovative ways: a fusion of Siamese, or Chinese, forms with European decoration. Glazed, white porcelain background with flowers, fireflies, scrolls and sags on a Siamese or Chinese form were very common…

Our journey, as if accompanying the journey that Benjaron had done, had found its end. I left the exhibition room loaded with images, stories, and luckily enough, scores of photos. It has been a wonderful afternoon.I started my way down…

 

Downstairs on the deck  overlooking the Chao Phraya , the river of Kings, a strong expresso was waiting…A perfect ending for a special afternoon…

 

 

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By
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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