JIM THOMPSON MUSEUM COLLECTION
Bencharong is a unique type of enameled porcelain made exclusively for Siamese royalty of the Chakri Dynasty, between the late 18th and early 20th centuries. The simple forms juxtapose with complex Thai designs painted in bright enamels against an intricate background of tropical flowers and geometrics. The brilliant colors, variety of motifs, and kaleidoscopic compositions are dazzling.
This ware is rarely seen outside of Thailand and it is hardly ever on public view. The Jim Thompson Museum Collection of Bencharong, however, crosses both of these barriers. Many resplendent pieces from the collection can be seen in the lustrous teakwood Jim Thompson House in Bangkok where they mingle gracefully with the other Asian artifacts, and this web site offers you several additional ways to learn about this ware.
- By reading the primer for information on the meaning of Bencharong, its patronage, function, form, motifs, manufacturing methods, production centers, and dating.
- By pointing the mouse on a picture and double clicking for an enlarged view and description of any of the ninety selected pieces on this web site. We have three photo albums. Page 1, Page 2, Page 3.
The name ‘Bencharong’ derives from two Sanskrit words—panch (‘five’) and rong (‘colour’) and relates to the number of colours used on a single piece. It is, however, not always five as it varies from three to eight. The reason for this inconsistency is uncertain but it may be that the number five is significant in Buddhism, which has been the dominant religion in Thailand since at least the 14th century. It also signifies the five elements—wood, fire, earth, metal, water—and all of these elements, except metal, are used for making ceramics. Water mixed with earth produces clay and wood ignites making fire to harden clay.
Lai Nam Thong, a Thai name that means “gold wash”, is a variant of Bencharong. As the name suggests, gold is applied to Lai Nam Thong ware and it was used only by royalty. The quality of the porcelain and the workmanship on the decoration of Lai Nam Thong are generally excellent.
Both Bencharong and Lai Nam Thong have the following characteristics:
- Made in southern China (Jiangxi Province)
- A porcelain (occasionally stoneware) body with a white glaze
- Thai motifs (and sometimes Chinese) painted with brightly colored enamels
- Decoration covers the entire piece except the base
Initially, the Siamese court was the exclusive patron of Bencharong. King Rama II (reigned 1809-1824) was so keen that he even composed poetry and penned the following words when curry was served to him in a Bencharong bowl from his private collection.
‘Any man who tastes this hot and spicy curry
will dream of the beautiful lady who prepared it’
By the mid-19th century, the clientele for Bencharong expanded and it became a luxury commodity for those in the service of the court (ministers, officials, provincial governors) and wealthy merchants who ordered it for their personal use. There is also some evidence that Bencharong was made in limited quantities for the courts of Cambodia and Laos.
Bencharong was used as containers for food at royal table settings. Tea drinking was popular and The Jim Thompson Collection has some interesting tea pots and small cups, some with covers. Betel was used by royalty both for chewing and as part of the royal regalia and the collection includes examples of Bencharong spittoons. Small pots exquisitely decorated with miniature designs and often with a gold knob bedecked the boudoirs of the king’s consorts as containers for cosmetics, oil, and ointments.
The forms are simple as Bencharong was made for use as containers in daily life. Bencharong was used as a dinner service for Thai royalty and thus some of the shapes are similar to those used in a Thai dinner service today. Typical ones include: bowls (with and without covers), covered jars (sometimes called a toh, “water”, jar), tea pots and cups, small pots, spittoons, and spoons. Overall, the contours of the forms are gentle without sharp angles and the proportions are balanced. There are, however, subtle variations in the profiles, the treatment of the rim and foot and the shape of the cover and the knob.
The subject matter of the decoration is generally Thai, although Chinese patterns occur sometimes, particularly on Lai Nam Thong. Motifs draw inspiration from Buddhism, the Ramakien (a Thai national epic) and much loved folk tales and legends. Mythical animals who inhabit the Himaphan forest located on the slopes of Mount Meru, which is the axis of the universe, frolic whimsically amidst the verdant tropical flora and fauna of Southeast Asia and mingle with deities, demons, birds and beasts.
Diamond-shaped frames are common. They replicate tropical leaves and are entwined into a scroll that is repeated in a trellis or lattice-pattern on the body.
The exotic cotton leaf (lai bai phai thet) is a common tropical plant.
A flame-like leaf pattern (kranok), a symbol of the flame of Buddhism, is at the heart of plant motifs and appears in abundance in many Thai art forms and media.
The beautiful lotus (lai dok bua) (Nelumbo nucifera) flower is an enduring symbol of Buddhism. It emerges from the muddy waters of the river a pristine white symbolizing purity and its seed suggests fertility.
The phikul flower is a small, white bud.
The sugar-cane-eye pattern (lai krajang ta oi) is used for borders.
A twisting stem (lai kan kod) pattern is a combination of leaves and stems.
Mythical Animals and Deities
A Garuda is a mythical creature with a human body and birdlike wings, legs and a thick curved beak with bulging eyes; his lower body is covered with feathers and he has the claws of an eagle.
Hanuman is a mythical monkey from the Ramayana and he is chief of the army of monkeys.
A mythical lion (singh)with the wings of a bird, a flowing mane, and a leaf-like tail is a Bencharong motif. A Chinese-style lion is sometimes used as a knob on covers. A Rajasingh is a royal lion.
A Norasingh is a mythical semi-deity who lives in the Himaphan forest that is a combination of a human head, torso, and arms with the hind-quarters of a lion and the tail and hoofs of a deer.
A Thepanom is a celestial being known in Buddhist cosmology and is usually depicted in a worshipping posture. A typical thepanom on Bencharong is seated and wears a collar and waist band formed from petals, bracelets and armlets made up of bands of small flowers.
A Thewada (Thevada, Deva), a celestial being who lives in the lower heavens of Buddhist cosmology. He is typically depicted on Bencharong in a seated position with arms outstretched.
Manufacturing Method and Centers of Production
Two glazes and two or three firings were required to make a piece of Bencharong, so it was expensive and complicated to produce. The basic form was a piece of undecorated, white-glazed porcelain that was undoubtedly made at Jingdezhen kilns in southern China.
Next, mineral pigments in a lead base or enamels were applied on to the white-glazed body according to Siamese specifications as to colors, motifs, and arrangement of the pattern. The colors used on Bencharong are similar to those of the Chinese famille verte (green, red, yellow, blue, black, purple, brown, turquoise) and famille rose (pink, blue, violet, black, red, yellow) palettes.
Then, the piece was fired a second time in a muffle kiln (with an inner chamber to protect the enamels) in an oxidizing atmosphere at a low temperature (750-850 degrees centigrade) so that the colors, which were applied over the glaze, would not burn away.
The application of gold, or gilding, required yet a third firing at an even lower temperature. Sometimes gold is used as a background on Bencharong; other times, it is used to outline or fill in a motif.
The application of the color and patterns was most likely done in Guangzhou (Canton), southern China. There is, however, some evidence of a few pieces being painted with enamels in Bangkok.
Many pieces have a metal band around the rim of the bowl and cover. This was applied in Bangkok when the rims were slightly damaged.
Evidence for dating Bencharong is scarce. Partial inventories of some kings and a few pieces are known in heirloom collections. One fairly certain date is ad 1730 when famille rose was perfected in China, so Bencharong with pink color cannot be earlier. The late 18th to the early 20th century is a reasonable range of dates for the production of Bencharong, the finest pieces being produced during the reign of Rama II (1809-1824). The beginning date for Lai Nam Thong is slightly later than Bencharong.
Warren, William, Jim Thompson, The House on the Klong, text on the art collection by Jean-Michel Beurdeley, photography by Luca Invernizzi Tettoni, Singapore, Archipelago Press, 1999.
Robinson, Natalie V., Sino-Thai Ceramics in the National Museum, Bangkok, Thailand and in Private Collections, Bangkok, The Department of Fine Arts, 1982.
Rooney, Dawn, Betel Chewing Traditions in South-East Asia, Kuala Lumpur, Oxford University Press, 1993.