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magnificent view of the state barge of the King of Siam

THOMSON, JOHN. King of Siam’s State Barge

Bangkok, c. 1865

Two joined albumen prints. Each approx 7 x 9 ¼ in., for a total of 7 x 18 ½ in. Signed in one negative “J. Thomson Phot.” Minor fading. Near fine.

This is one of the greatest early photographs by John Thomson, “a towering figure in nineteenth-century photography” (Bennett). In 1865, having read of the discovery of Angkor in Cambodia, Thomson sailed to Bangkok to obtain the permission of King Mongkut of Siam to travel into Cambodia’s interior. While in Bangkok, Thomson made photographs of the king, his court, and his magnificent royal barge.

This is a magnificent two-panel view of the king’s barge on the water, with dozens of oarsmen ready to put their paddles in to the water. The king’s ornate covered throne is at the rear of the vessel. The riverbank in the background is crowded with low thatched roof buildings.

Thomson recalled, “It is the annual custom of the King, in the month of November, to visit certain royal temples, and to make offerings to their priests. On these occasions the monarch may be seen arrayed in all the splendour of his jeweled robes, enthroned in his state barge, and paddled about by a hundred men. Behind him follow the nobles of his court, almost as grand, and thus the pageant moves in long procession down the river or along its network of canals. This ‘progress’ in boats was one of the most imposing spectacles I ever beheld in the East” (Thomson, The Straits of Malacca, Indo-China, and China, pp. 86-87).

This photograph is the source of the wood engraving that appeared in The Illustrated London News, 25 May 1867. “As far as can be determined, [this and one other] were the first of his images to be published and this must have encouraged him to think that the images and experiences he had gathered could find commercial outlet back in Britain” (Ovenden, John Thomson Photographer, p. 24).