The historic origins of the V&A's Thai collection lie in acquisitions made largely during the period from the mid 19th to the late 20th centuries. More recently important acquisitions of early sculpture and metalwork from the 7th to the 9th centuries, including pieces from the collection of Alexander Biancardi, have further strengthened these holdings. The collection has been additionally enhanced in the last few years by the bequest of objects formerly belonging to Doris Duke, the renowned American collector of South East Asian art.
The Arts of Thailand display features the museum's finest Thai Buddhist sculptures in bronze and stone spanning the period from the 7th to the 19th centuries together with works of decorative art in a wide variety of media associated both with the Thai court and with monasteries. These include carved ivory, niello ware, silver and gold repoussé work, wood and lacquer offering dishes overlaid with mother of pearl and the unusual porcelain Bencharong ('Five Colour') vessels made for the Thai court and nobility in the kilns of China.
The range of the display has been extended by the inclusion of a painting illustrating a Jataka scene from a former life of the Buddha and an astrologer's illustrated handbook. A spectacular focus for one of the cases is provided by a late 19th century diamond encrusted belt and pendant necklace on loan to the museum from the Thai royal family and formerly owned by Queen Saowabha Pongsri, Queen to King Rama 5th of Thailand (1868-1910).
Click on the images below for more information:
Gilt laquered bronze gong. Museum no. 363-1908
Cast bronze with gilding
Diameter 51 cm, depth 8 cm
Museum no. 363-1908
A gong of cast bronze coated with black thassi gum with gilt decoration. Disc-shaped with a central boss; the decorations consists of two enthroned praying deities surrounded by lattice-work and leafy scrolls. The inside of the gong is decorated with astrological devices.
Enamelled and inlaid razor. Museum no. 406-1894
Enamelled and inlaid razor
Steel, black coral, gold, enamel
Length 15 cm, width 2.2 cm
Museum no. 406-1894
Razor ('mit-khone') of steel with black coral handle, mounted in gold and enriched with coloured enamels. The blade is inlaid with gold floral ornament. Used in the hair-cutting ceremony ('kone chook').
Pair of gold inlaid steel scissors. Museum no. 402-1894
Pair of gold inlaid steel scissors
Steel, gold inlay, glass
Length 36 cm, width 4 cm
Museum no. 402-1894
A pair of scissors (takrai) of steel inlaid in gold with elaborate floral ornament. The gold knob at the end is enamelled and decorated with pieces of coloured glass. Used in the hair-cutting ceremony ('konechook').
Papier-mâché demon mask. Museum no. IM. 44-1939
Papier-mâché demon mask
Papier-mâché, gilt, paint, mirror-work
Height 59 cm, width 26 cm
Museum no. IM. 44-1939
A mask made of papier-mâché and painted mirror-work that would have been used in the performance of stories from the Ramayana, known as 'khon'. This particular mask would have been worn by an actor playing the part of Indrajit, son of the Demon King. The face is painted green with bulging eyes and human-shaped ears, and the tapered gilt crown is decorated with mirrors.
Ivory seal. Museum no. IS. 10-2005
Height 10 cm, diameter 5.5 cm
Museum no. IS. 10-2005
Seal in the shape of a Buddhist stupa, carved in intaglio on the base with a design of an armed soldier.
Bronze head of Bodhisattva Maitreya. Museum no. IS. 24-1988
Height 13 cm
Museum no. IS. 24-1988
Bronze head of Bodhisattva Maitreya. Maitreya is a bodhisattva (enlightened being) who in the Buddhist tradition is to appear on Earth, achieve complete enlightenment, and teach the pure dharma (enlightenment and knowledge of the world). According to scriptures, Maitreya will be a successor of the historic S'a-kyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism.
Bowl and Cover, China/Thailand. Museum no. 361-1908.
Bowl and Cover
China / Thailand
Museum no. 361-1908
The name Bencharong derives from the Sanskrit "panch rang" or "five colours", relating to the typical number of colours combined on a single piece. Bencharong was made using a piece of white unglazed porcelain produced in the kilns of Jingdezhen. This was then transported to Guangzhou, where it was painted with enamel colours using Thai designs, before export to Thailand.
Gold repoussé betel box. Museum no. IM. 49-1937
Height 9 cm, diameter 12 cm
Museum no. IM. 49-1937
A circular gold repoussé box with a cover, used to store betel leaves.
Vase and cover with lotus decoration. Museum no. 401-1894
Vase and cover
Height 27.5 cm, width 15 cm, depth 15 cm
Museum no. 401-1894
A vase and cover (kun tho nam mon) of silver, with a bulb-shaped body decorated with a repoussé pattern of lotus petals. There is a band of leaf ornament on the foot and around the top of the body. The cover, with three tiers of umbrellas and a lotus bud on the top, is chased with a floral design. Used in the hair cutting ceremony ('kone chook') for holding holy water.
Gilt metal Buddha. Museum no. 1381-1874
Gilt metal, glass mirror
Height 55 cm, width 13 cm, depth 12 cm
Museum no. 1381-1874
Gilt metal figure of a standing Buddha with both palms held out in a blessing. The figure is fully clothed with an elaborate head dress and ornaments. It is decorated with glass mirror work and is standing on a graduated base, overshadowed by a triple canopy.
Bowl, Sumatra. Museum no. IS.360-1950.
Height 12cm, diameter 25.5cm
Museum no. IS.360-1950
This bowl, used for washing, was produced in Nakhon Si Thammarat on the southern Thai peninsular. From the early 19th century the town was known for its excellent niello ware.
Papier-mâché demon mask. Museum no. IM. 45-1939
Papier-mâché, gold, mirror work
Height 45 cm, width 29 cm
Museum no. IM. 45-1939
A papier-mâché demon-faced dance mask with gold and painted mirror work.
Covered Bowl, Thailand. Museum no. Is. 3-1900.
Silver, parcel gilt
Height 17cm, diameter 11.5cm
Museum no. IS.360-1950
This probably formed part of a presentation set of monk's food vessels. The use of the lotus petal motif on the body and cover refers to spiritual purity. Gifts made to the community of monk's or Sangha are considered to be highly meritorious in Thailand bringing benefits to the giver in future lives.
Bowl and Stand, Thailand. Museum no. 396-1894.
Bowl and Stand
Museum no. IM.55-1937
This form of raised stand is based on the offering dishes used to present gifts to monks. Here however the type was utilised to hold items of regalia such as crowns or hats for royalty.
Gold repoussee Betel Box, Thailand. Museum no. IM.49-1937.
Height 9cm, diameter 12cm
Museum no. IM.49-1937
This high quality object was used in courtly circles to contain areca-nut. This nut was chewed together with betel leaves and lime paste, referred to collectively as 'betel-nut'. The box has been stained red with tamarind juice to give a warm red finish.
Bottle, Thailand. Museum no. 1379-1874.
Silver repoussee engraved nielloed
Height 28cm, diameter 12.7cm, diameter 15.2cm
Museum no. 1379-1874
A water bottle which probably once formed part of a 'betel-nut' set.
The chewing of mildly narcotic betel-leaves together with areca-nut, cloves and lime was a popular custom throughout South East Asia in the 19th century. The sets of vessels used to contain all the components were a sign of high rank in Thai culture and were carried behind their owners as an indication of status.
Silver bowl, Thailand. Museum no. IS.60-1958.
mid-late 19th century
Silver, silver alloy, silver gilt (niello)
Museum no. IS. 60-1958
The body of this niello bowl is decorated with celestial dancers set amidst flowering foliage. Niello is created by removing the surface surrounding the main design and filling it with an alloy of silver and lead. When heated this turns black, so highlighting the featured design. Here parts of the leaf pattern and figures have also been further enriched with gilding.
Fortune Telling Manual, Thailand. Museum no. IM.6-1935.
Fortune Telling Manual
Mid 19th Century
Folding manuscript of 'Khoi' paper
Height 33.4cm, width 10.5cm, depth 1.5cm
Museum no. IM.6-1935
Fortune tellers were consulted by every class of Thai society in the past. The system followed was based on the day and month of birth of the user. Illustrations depict the fates of individuals or of married couples in symbolic form. For example, couples influenced by the green princely figure with a bow who rides on a 'naga', or water spirit, will both fall.
Presentation Stand, Thailand. Museum no. 1376-1874.
Tazza wood, inlay work
Height 54cm, width 43cm, diameter 39.4cm
Museum no. 1376-1874
Stands such as this were used by the king and nobility to give food flowers, incense and other offerings to the monk community or Sangha. The most important gift giving ceremonies called Kathin occur at the end of the rainy season, between the full moons of October and November. At this time new monastic robes and food are given to the Sangha.
Crowned Buddha, Thailand. Museum no. IM.65-1927.
Ayutthaya period, Thailand
14th to 15th Century
Height 13.5cm, width 4.2cm, depth 2.3cm
Museum no. IM65-1927
One of the most influential image types of the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767) is this one in which the Buddha wears a crown and royal robes and makes the gesture of the double abhaya mudra meaning 'bestowing fearlessness'. According to Thai legend it represents the occasion on which the Buddha appeared in royal robes to subdue a heretic Indian king called Jambhupati.
Cosmetic boxes, Thailand. Museum no. IS.62
Height 9cm, width 6cm, depth 6cm
Museum no. IS.62,63-1958
These small boxes were used by noble-women to contain lip-wax, the equivalent of modern lipstick.
Conch Shell Water Vessel, Thailand. Museum no. 819-1894.
Conch Shell Water Vessel
Shell, silver gilt, gold, enamel, precious stones and glass
Length 20cm, width 9cm, depth 7cm
Museum no. 819-1894
Used in a number of Brahmanic ceremonies to pour blessed water over a recipient. In the past these included the top-knot cutting ceremony, marking a child's coming of age. Conches are also used today at Thai marriages where water is poured over the hands of bride and groom. In ancient Indian Hinduism the conch was a symbol of sovereignty and power.
Head of Buddha, Thailand. Museum no. IM.80-1927.
Head of Buddha
Found at Chiensen, North Thailand
Bronze cast in full relief by cire perdue process.
Height 22.9cm, width 14.3cm, thickness 13.6cm
Museum no. IM.80-1927
This head belonged to an image produced in one of the major centres of bronze casting in the kingdom of Lan Na in present day northern Thailand. This kingdom flourished most fully between the 13th and 16th centuries though it remained independent until 1897.
Bowl and Stand, Thailand. Museum no. 396-1894.
Bowl and Stand
Earthenware and lacquer
Height 19cm, diameter 23cm
Museum no. 396-1894
A bowl used in ceremonies to obtain and pour blessed water. In an unusual technique lacquer has been applied over an earthenware body. The lotus petal decoration refers to the spiritual power of the waters within.
Head of the Buddha, Thailand. Museum no. IS.15-1968.
Head of the Buddha
Lopburi style, Thailand
Early 13th Century
Height 27.9cm, width 17.8cm, depth 20.3cm
Museum no. IS.15-1968
The expressive features of this face reflect the influence of the last phase of the Khmer style of Ankor, the Khmer capital. Throughout the 11th and 12th centuries, when Thailand formed part of the Khmer Empire, Lopburi was a chief seat of Khmer power. Cambodian influences continued to be felt there even after its political domination was broken early in the 13th century.
Jar and Cover, China / Thailand. Museum no. 8&A-1883.
Jar and Cover
China / Thailand
about 18th Century
Porcelain (Bencharong) and enamel colours
Height 24cm, diameter 18.5cm
Museum no. 8&A-1883
Bencharong was a class of porcelain made in China exclusively for export to the Thai court between the late 17th and early 20th century. Though made in China the designs used are typically Thai. Here they include praying celestial figures or 'Thepanom', the combination man/lion/deer or 'Norasingh' and flames or 'Kranok'.
Seated Buddha, Lan Na Kingdom
Lan Na Kingdom, Northern Thailand
16th to 17th Century
Bronze and gilt
Museum no. IM.90-1958
The Buuddha Sakyamuni is shown at the moment of his Enlightenment and victory over Mara, the embodiment of death. His right hand reaches down into the ground in 'bhumisparsa mudra', calling on the Earth Goddess to witness his worthiness to attain enlightenment.
Seated Buddha Sakyamuni, Thailand. Museum no. IS.362-1992.
Seated Buddha Sakyamuni
Sri Tep Style, Thailand
about 8th century
Museum no. IS.362-1992
The Buddha sits in an unusual posture with his legs crossed at the ankles and makes the gesture of exposition or vitarka mudra with his left hand, rather than with the more usual right. The style of the figure, with distinctive square shoulders and narrow waist, relates closely to stone sculptures at the Dvaravati period site of Si T'ep, in Petchaburi Province.
Small Offering Dish, Thailand. Museum no. IS. 389-1992.
Small Offering Dish
Museum no. IS. 389-1992
This form of food offering dish (Pham) on a raised foot is an ancient one found in 15th and 16th century ceramic versions from Sukhothai in central Thailand. Dishes of this form were often used in sets of diminishing size, with the smallest at the top. The embossed lotus petal motif forming its sides is a typical decoration.
Standing bodhisattva. Museum no. IS. 72-1993
7th - 8th century
Museum no. IS. 72-1993
This figure would have formed part of a Buddhist triad with an image of Buddha flanked by two attending bodhisattvas. The presence of a seated Buddha (Amitabha) in the head-dress identifies this figure as the Lord of Compassion, Avalokitesvara, and by the animal skin drawn around his waist. The treatment of the flaming nimbus and cascading loops of hair point to inspiration from eastern Indian models of the period.
Shiva, Thailand. Museum no. IM.42-1934.
North Central Thailand
about 15th century
Height 30cm, width 12cm
Museum no. IM.42-1934
The truncated, conical headdress and small trident held in the figure’s right hand show that this standing image is that of the supreme Hindu deity Shiva.
Royal Belt and Pendant Brooch, Thailand. Private loan.
Royal Belt and Pendant Brooch
Commissioned for HM Queen Saowabha Pongsri, wife of Chulalongkorn of Thailand (Rma V of the Chakri Dynasty)
Gold inset with diamonds
This remarkably fine gold belt and accompanying pendant were worn on state occasions by Queen Saowabha Pongsri of Thailand. They are shown in the photograph of an oil portrait of the Queen from around 1900. Later, the wife of the Queen's grandson wore them at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. The gold work is of the highest quality appropriate to a royal commission. The belt's construction is complex, reflecting a long tradition in Thailand in goldsmithing of articulated linked forms.
Kneeling Male Devotees, Thailand. Museum no. IS.29
Kneeling Male Devotees
Early 19th century
Bronze, painted and gilded
Height 20cm, width 10cm, depth 14cm
Museum no. IS.29,30-2005
Kneeling devotees such as these are often placed before a Buddha image. One holds sticks of incense which he offers to the unseen figure while the other joins hands in prayer.
Daggers, Thailand. Museum no. IM.60
about 19th Century
Steel and ivory
Museum no. 60, 61 & 62-1937
Each dagger's pommel end has been carved with a figure from popular Thai mythology, influenced by Indian culture. The kneeling figure with two hands together is Hanuman, the monkey general and the close ally of Rama, from the Ramayana. Two ogres are shown one on top of the other, while the beaked figure is the half human, half eagle Garuda who subdues coiled snakes, symbolic of the waters.
Ritual ladle, Thailand. Museum no. 441-1894.
Wood, mother of pearl, glass and lacquer
Length 39cm, width 10cm
Museum no. 441-1894
This ladle was used by Brahman priests in rituals of blessing the seed rice before its sowing during the Spring festival of 'Poet Mongol' at the start of May. At this time sanctified water was sprinkled over the rice.
Standing Buddha, Thailand. Museum no. IS.31-2005.
16th century style
Height 40cm, width 14cm
Museum no. IS.31-2005
Bequest of Doris Duke
This Buddha is here dressed in monks robes and raises his right hand in abhaya mudra, the gesture of reassurance. The style is that currrent in the kingdom of Ayutthaya during the 16th century.
Silver and gold repoussé teapot. Museum no. 476-1894
Silver and gold teapot
Height 24 cm, width 20 cm
Museum no. 476-1894
Teapot (kar-nam-ton) and cover made from silver. Bulb-shaped body, small circular foot, with a short spout and a vertical handle fixed over the cover, which is surmounted by two tiers and a knob. The whole teapot is covered with repoussé work in a floral diaper pattern and covered with gold; the depressed portions are filled in with niello, forming a black background. The cover is fastened to the handle with a chain.