Thai Lacquer Works

Book-case (Too phra Tamma), Wat Rakhangkhositaram, Bangkok. Classic style of Thai art.
Note the perfect distribution of the figures and ornaments from which issues the harmony
of the dark and light values.

    Among the applied arts made in olden days by the Thai, that of the design ingold leaf applied over black lacquer, rarely on red lacquer, was very important to decorate many objects for religious purposes and common uses. From the ornments of small boxes to the decoration of entire wooden walls, which means from the enrichment of a few square inches to that of hundreds of square feet, the art of the lacquer design found an extensive application.

    Door panels of the Ordination Hall, Wat Benchamabophit Dusitwanaram, Bangkok

    The lacquer work, which in Thai is called "Lai Rod Nam", meaning, as will be seen later, ornaments merging from washing the work with water, saw its best period in Ayutthaya from the 17th to the first half of the 18th century. In 1767 and again in 1782, the capital of Thailand was shifted from Ayutthaya to Thonburi first and afterwards to Bangkok where the technique of the lacquer work followed exactly the characteristics of the classic specimens. But artistically it gradually degenerated, particularly due to Chinese artistic influences, very noticeable in the later productions. Certainly, the change in style, was due to a newfashion feeling, desire for designs differing from the traditional ones. In doing so, the very Thai artistic peculiarities were lost; on the other head, this lacquer production could not compete with the Chinese classic lacquer works because the principles ruling the styles os the respective arts are quite different.

    Detail of the two front panels of book-case showing the Lai Kanok-scroll-type. All the scrolls end in mythological Kinnaras and Kinnarees (half bird half human being), demons and other similar figures

    The technique of the lacquer work is still practised in Thailand today, especially in Ching Mai, but because a fine design takes much time to be executed, in our day of rapid commercialization, this art has lost its high artistic qualities. Besides the ancient method of lacquer application at present is also used in Ching Mai objects are decorated with ornaments in coloured lacquer only. Usually red and black are used as basic tints.

    War scene, detail. A king driving the typical brge-like chariot commonly used by the Thai royalty in state ceremonies, Bangkok workmanship

    The lacquer design may be applied on wooden panels or round objects such as boxes, vases, etc., made with interlaced thin splits of bamboo-canes filling up the interstices with lacquer. At large we may say that the technique consists of applying to the wooden panel or bamboo-box, three coats of black lacquer, a resin from a plant growing in the north of Thailand. Subsequently, the drawing is traced, and with a yellow-gummy-paint the parts which have to remain black are covered in all their smallest detail. The next process is to give a thin coat of lacquer over the surface, and when it is semi-dry, gold leaves are applied over the whole surface. After about twenty hours the work is washed with water which detaching the gold leaves adhering to the yellow-gummy-paint let the design appear near in all its details. Hence this art is called "Lai rod nam" -- ornaments washed with water. Of course, the beauty of the lacquer work depends first upon a perfect design and afterwards a perfect execution which the artist himself must carry out.
    As mentioned above, the lacquer decoration was applied to many objects, but principally it was used to enrich door and windows-panels and book-cases serving to keep holy-scripts written on palm-leaves.

    Specimen from Ayutthaya with a design representing Louis XIV of France and King Aurang Zebe of India. Here the artist had to represent a non-traditional where the balance of the dark and light values does not correspond to the classic Thai style of the lacquer works

    The book-cse, called "Too Phra Tamma", were and in many instances, are still roomed in wooden libraries, "Ho Trai", built over ponds to prevent the termites from destroying the scripts. The interior of the libraries too was often decorated with geometrical ornaments; few were enriched with compositions dealing with historical or mythological scenes.
    There is a box usually termed "To Nangsue Suat" or "Phra Malai." The books contained in this box are related to metaphysical matters and are read during the ceremonies concerned with the deceased oned. The term "Phra Malai," a disciple of Lord Buddha, refers to his visits to Heaven and Hell wherein the saint was illuminated about the causes giving spiritual happiness or punishments according to our terrestrial behaviour.