Today we welcome the second guest for Our Style Heroes, H.M. King Mongkut, King Rama IV of Thailand (1804 – 1868). You might know him as the King in the film from 1946, ‘The King and I’ but in Thailand, he is revered for ruling one of the greatest monarchs through history. These portraits, captured by Scottish photographer John Thompson, speak of gentlemanly elegance, and an incredible style that comes from a delicate balance between traditional Thai and French styles.
This kind of early portraiture was always a highly composed scene where backdrops, carpeting, props, pose, and the positioning of every object in scene were carefully considered for a precious exposure. It seems to me that Thompson was using glass plate negatives to shoot the King, and I fell head over heels for the crispy focal points that capture so much detail in his elaborate outfit, while textures in the background melt like butter into the distance. The King’s gaze feels imposing and slightly intimidating in the last two shots shown at the bottom, but my interest lies in the almost-smirk that brightens his face in the image just below. This is what I call ‘coolness’; a photograph that reeks of style from the moment you set eyes on it – it speaks pride and effortlessness like a total boss, and all of it comes from his expression and how he holds himself. The apparel is extra goodness.
In my favourite scene, the King of Siam is wearing a mix of the royal Thai costume with some French elements like the collared buttoned jacket underneath his gold coronation robe. He wears Jonggraben, Thai silk trousers that are usually fastened with a gold belt for ceremonies, or just tied in a knot in day to day life. On his feet are gold enamel slippers in a curved shape that references India, a neighbour of the Kingdom of Siam, and a culture that has rooted itself in South East Asia. King Mongkut sits on a throne carved with garudas and nagas, mythical creatures that I see a lot in antique weaves from my own collection. They are mortal enemies, the garuda, a half-bird-half-human, and the naga, a serpent, both appearing in Hindu and Buddhist scripture. These figures, destined to fight each other through time, are lined up together protecting the throne. In his hand is his walking stick, and on his right side is betel nut, something that is still used in ceremony today. You can chew it for a brief high, and people still do. If you come across someone with blood red teeth, that’s why.
Like a lot of staged portraiture of the time, the scene has been set up to look like it was taken indoors, but with such low light and long exposure times, this would make for some pretty dark photos. Even outdoors, subjects had to stay completely still for a few seconds in each shot (a big improvement from daguerrotypes where subjects even needed built structures to keep their heads and limbs from moving during super long exposures). It’s a romantic idea to remove a scene from its typical setting and recreate it somewhere else. I think this is how some of the great thinkers through time have been able to bubble up newness out of the existing, and I’m always reminded of these roots when I walk by flea markets where you might find living room settings in the middle of a street footpath. You can see in the last two photographs, hints of the outdoors like the carved wall in the final shot, something you would find typically adorning the exterior of architecture in South East Asia. Let’s be honest, the pot plant was a pretty big give-away, but I hope you somehow find this strangeness romantic as I do. At the end of the day, strangeness makes us curious, keeps us thinking, and pokes us up the but to push us moving forward.
Rama IV, King Mongut, in Siamese regalia on October 6, 1865. Photo by John Thomson.
Rama IV, King of Siam, in European regalia, 1865. Photo by John Thomson.