Book Talk: The Making of ‘Prince Naris: A Siamese Designer’
Prince Naris: A Siamese Designer, a lovingly-produced publication by Serindia Publications, is a big book—but then its subject was a big character. A son of King Mongkut, Rama IV, and half-brother of King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, Prince Narisaranuvattiwongse (1863-1947) was the principal court designer during the reigns of King Rama V to King Rama VII. He was also considerably more than that: “a great master in the arts,” “a scholar of archaeology” and “a composer and choreographer of music and dance,” are just some of the self-acquired skills attributed to him in his official title.
Author and architecture professor ML Chittawadi Chitrabongs, his great-granddaughter, recently sat down to tell us about the five-year making and new revelations of this authoritative book, which views his royal commissions and other work through the prism of preliminary sketches, drawings and other hitherto unpublished archive material.
How did the book come together?
MR Chakrarot Chitrabongs, my father, was the initiator of the project. In 2011, he asked Prince Naris’ youngest daughter H.S.H. Princess Karnikar Chitrabongs (11 December 1916-6 May 2015) then the president of the Naris Foundation to mark the 150th year of Prince Naris birth by allowing the descendants of the Chitrabongs Family to photograph and to publish Prince Naris’ sketches and drawings on loose papers, sketchbooks, used envelopes and wax sheets. This had been kept untouched after Prince Naris’ death in 1947 at his private residence in Klong Toey district, Ban Plainern or “house at the end of the slope”.
In this book, Prince Naris preliminary sketches and drawings are the key to study his design process. I categorise the drawings into four chapters, namely buildings, human figures, animal figures and alphabetical letters. I was delighted that over time I could find a title for each drawing that had no name. For example, the detailed construction drawing of Singha base at Benchamabopit Temple and the sketches of lion and tiger for the fresco of the ubosoth of Rajadhivas Temple in his postcard size sketchbook. These drawings are parts of a modern production of traditional crafts.
How did he learn his trade?
Prince Naris was an autodidact in the art field. He learnt how to draw by studying the work of Siamese muralists. When Prince Naris began drawing, there was no Siamese conception of “design.” There was no art museum, and fine and applied arts were not taught at universities. Prince Naris was a designer who understood the skills of the craftsman and developed them, working with Siamese craftsmen and Italian artists on royal commissions to open up a space for “art” in Siam.
What was the Prince Naris approach to design?
The most interesting point about a Prince Naris design is that it is based on the idea of collaboration. Being able to work with someone is not an easy task. Imagine the problem of communication. Prince Naris must have believed in how the Italian painter Carlo Regoli handled the paint and that their artistic visions were compatible.
Prince Naris also carefully differentiated between form and content. Take the frescos in the ubosoth of Rajadhivas Temple for example; they are the Vessantara Jataka a story of Buddha’s life in realistic form. Regoli could not have done this by himself. Nor could Prince Naris. But, together, their work achieved such high quality because the collaboration was genuine.
Which of his designs standout for you personally?
Prince Naris included five lively rats as part of a talipot fan designed for H.R.H. Princess Napapornprapa on her 60th birthday in 1924. The princess lived in the Inner Palace and was the daughter of King Mongkut and Chao Chom Manda Samli. Because her name meant “picturesque sky”, Prince Naris framed the design with a silhouetted window to mark the separation between the interior and exterior of the inner palace. The silhouette was embroidered in black, leaving the light blue silk of the fan to represent the sky. Outside the window, Prince Naris drew a cotton tree and a bunnag tree, or Indian rose chestnut. These, too, are symbolic of Princess Napapornprapa’s mother, who was named Samli, which means cotton, and who had been born into the Bunnag family. The rats dancing on the window are there because the princess was born in the year of the rat, and they are five in number to mark her 60th birthday, or 12th cycle. A closer look at the composition reveals a tiny head peering over the windowsill—a sixth rat, bearing birthday wishes for the next 12 years to come.
What about his buildings?
In the category of building, I like the design of the ubosoth at Prapathomchedi Monastery, Nakorn Prathom Province. Prince Naris’ idea to remove the words of the Ye Dhamma, which might be paraphrased as “Whatever is subject to origination is also subject to cessation”, from individual bricks and use them in a different manner demonstrates how he applied the design process to Siamese arts and crafts in an intellectual, as well as an aesthetic, manner. Protecting national heritage does not necessarily entail conservation or renovation; in this instance, we see Prince Naris reusing ancient scripts to individualise his design work.
Rather than placing the inscription inside the ubosoth, Prince Naris chose to display it on an exterior south-facing wall between two bas-relief sema, or boundary markers. This composition is atypical because an ubosoth usually stands within a boundary formed by sema stones, which mark the line of separation between the sacred and the profane. Instead of using actual stones, Prince Naris incorporated the idea of boundary stones onto the building itself by designing four stucco sema and placing them on the four corners of the ubosoth.
What was Prince Naris’ relationship with Corrado Feroci, who later became Professor Silpa Bhirasri, like?
The founder of Silpakorn University Corrado Feroci (1892–1962) was a close colleague of Prince Naris. During their friendship, Feroci sculpted six portraits of Prince Naris. This number is extraordinary for an artist to work on a singular subject. Feroci first sculpted a bust of Prince Naris not long after his arrival in Siam, but it was unacceptable to Siamese civil servants of the time because the bust was unclothed. Prince Naris, however, admired Feroci’s skill and kept the bust hidden away. The whereabouts of the scandalous bust were unknown until ten years ago when a family friend returned the plaster bust to Ban Plainern, without ever revealing its hiding place. Today, bronze sculptures cast from this bust are housed at Ban Plainern, the National Gallery of Thailand, and Silpakorn University. The sixth and final sculpture of Prince Naris was a 1:5 scale version of the first sculpture, and contains the prince’s ashes. Each year, new grantees of the Naris Foundation receive a certificate and brooch modeled on this sculpture.
What was Prince Naris like as a person?
Prince Naris was fastidious. As I was finishing this book, I became more and more intrigued by the diaries Prince Naris kept. Neither I nor my father have seen them and I had to rely on my great-aunt H.S.H. Princess Karnikar Chitrabongs to describe them to me; the details that follow are gleaned from her still-sharp memory. In addition to the date and his location, Prince Naris liked to record his own weight in each daily diary entry. He weighed himself before breakfast each morning using a beam scale similar to those used for weighing rice. Such was his dedication to this practice that, when he travelled, he always included a portable scale in his luggage.
He also recorded each day’s highest and lowest temperature, and made notes on the rainstorms that battered the city during the annual monsoon season. He noted what time each storm started, when it stopped, and how much rain had fallen. In order to measure the amount of rain, he customised a used ammunition case by adding a handle and etching lines on the casing at one-inch intervals.
The diaries contain many other details. When guests came to Ban Plainern, Prince Naris wrote down their names, the time of their visit, and the subject of their conversation or any requests they made. His diary entries were not confined to any particular time of day and he was in the habit of carrying his diary around with him so that he could add to it throughout the day. If he heard about an accident somewhere in the city, for instance, he would send at least three servants to go and find out what had happened; each servant tended to return with a different story, according to what he or she had seen or whom he or she had spoken to, and Prince Naris dutifully recorded this variety of viewpoints.
Priced at 2,950 baht, Prince Naris: A Siamese Designer is available now at Hardcover book stores at Central Embassy and the BACC.