IO – Last November an exhibition of the 19th and early 20th century batik collection of King Rama V of Thailand was opened in Bangkok by Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn who is the princess royal and sister to the newly crowned Thai king, King Rama X. The very popular Princess Sirindhorn who is affectionately known as “Phra Thep” a reduction of her title meaning “princess angel” in Thai shares a great similarity to King Rama V for she too is a sort of Renaissance woman interested in all subjects. The scholarly Princess who is a graduate of the Faculty of Arts of Chulalongkorn University has visited Indonesia several times and has even written a book on Indonesian culture covering such Indonesian cultural traditions as batik and wayang. Attending the opening of the exhibition were Gusti Kanjeng Ratu Hemas, queen consort of the current Sultan of Jogjakarta, Sultan Hamengkubuwono X and Gusti Kanjeng Bendara Raden Ayu Adipati Paku Alam, the consort of Paku Alam X of Jogjakarta who donated three batiks from her batik atelier.
The exhibition which bears the title: “A Royal Treasure: The Javanese Batik Collection of King Chulalongkorn of Siam” is housed at the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles in the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok. The exhibition runs from the 1st of November 2018 till the 31st of May 2021 and is open daily from 09.00 am to 16.30 pm. Thirty-seven pieces of King Rama V’s collection were on display and these pieces were rotated in August. They will be rotated again in six months so that finally all the pieces will been on view.
King Rama V is perhaps better-known outside of Thailand as King Chulalongkorn whose governess Anna Leonowns wrote a book about her experiences as governess to the Thai royal children which was later turned into Broadway plays and Hollywood films. King Chulalongkorn was at the time the crown prince and later he was crowned as King Rama V.
King Rama V was a very remarkable man who was the first Thai king to travel outside of Thailand. He visited the Netherlands East Indies as Indonesia was known at the time, three times namely in 1871, 1896 and 1901. During each of his visits he bought batiks which he greatly enjoyed although most of his batik purchases were made during his longest and most extensive visit in 1896.
The exhibition of King Rama V’s batik collection was created by Sarttarat Muddin as the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum curator with Dale Carolyn Gluckman as consulting curator. The museum itself was built in 1870 by King Rama V as the Tax Office of the Ministry of Finance. Previously, there were barracks on the site which were later demolished. King Rama V was inspired by buildings in the Netherlands Indies that he saw during his visits and the museum does show some similarities with Netherlands Indies architecture. In 2003 the building was no longer in use and Queen Sirikit asked that she be allowed to turn it into a textile museum. For this it underwent a seven year renovation to turn it into a state-of-the-art museum. It also houses Thailand’s first textile conservation laboratory.
“Her Majesty Queen Sirikit is a remarkable woman with great foresight,” says Mirta Kartohadiprodjo, founder of Indonesia’s Femina magazine who interviewed the Queen in 1978. “In the 1980’s Queen Sirikit sent Thai weavers to different parts of Indonesia which produce ikat textiles, to learn their different patterns, styles and methods. They learnt about ikat in songkets (Sumatran brocade textiles), ikat weaving in Eastern Indonesia and all over the Archipelago. Then when they returned to Thailand a workshop was held where the Queen invited farmers, weavers and even foreign experts in ikat techniques to learn about ikat. Queen Sirikit then launched Thai silk ikat weavings. Silk on silk – which previously they did not produce. This has further enriched Thai textiles today. I was invited to Queen Sirikit’s birthday celebrations where she launched the Thai ikat.”
King Rama V as King Chulalongkorn was later known was fascinated by batik and must have loved it as he purchased a total of three hundred and seven batik pieces during his many visits to Java – simply as a collector. “He did not buy the batiks with any intention of actually using the batik either to be worn or as household decoration such as wall hangings or table cloths. He simply collected them because he liked them and was curious about them,” explained curator Sarttarat Muddin, an archaeologist graduated from Silpakorn University (founded by renown Italian artist Corrado Feroci) who discovered that she is more interested in history of art than in archaeology and has visited Java several times for textile research. She intends to lead a tour of Thai nationals interested in following in the footsteps of King Rama V in Java later this year.
Some of King Rama V’s batik collection was exhibited in 1897 but not since then. After his death his batik collection remained untouched. “The collection belongs to the palace and not to the Queen Sirikit Textiles Museum. After King Rama V died, palace retainers were not sure what to do with such a collection and no one knew anything about batik. So, the batiks were kept in chests and it was only about twenty years ago that the palace opened the chests and began to look at the collection and then began to inventories it and to roll the textiles rather than fold them into chests. In about 2010 Prof Smithi was allowed to look at the collection and after the Queen Sirikit Museum was allowed to see it slowly the idea to create an exhibition was born. I was one of the lucky museum staff that was first permitted to first see the batik collection,” disclosed Sarttarat Muddin.
In researching King Rama V’s batik collection for the exhibition, the Queen Sirikit Museum reached out to several Indonesian textile experts and curators. Amongst those involved were Siti Mariah Waworuntu, Secretary General of the Traditional Textile Arts Society of Southeast Asia and for many years, editor of the Jurnal Wastra, the journal of the Indonesian Textile Society or Wastrprema. Another was Judi Achyadi the curator of the Jakarta Textile Museum who was one of the consultants for the batiks from Indonesia. At one point the Thai, American and Indonesian textile experts travelled to the Netherlands to visit museums with textile collections as well as archives from that period in their search for more information about King Rama V’s batiks.
The Javanese batik exhibition of King Chulalongkorn or Rama V is a very important and highly interesting batik exhibition from one of the most unique and extraordinary batik collections in the world. King Rama’s collection of batiks are mainly from the royal courts of central Java and the workshops of Indo-European ladies. Judi Achjadi commented, “It is important because other museums do no have 3017 pieces from a 30-year period. So, we know exactly the quality and the emphasis in batik during that period. The collections in other museums cover longer periods but have less pieces for those periods.
Another important aspect of the Rama V collection are the West Javanese batik pieces. In the collection the larger portions of batik from the Tasikmalaya – Garut area have a red dye that is equivalent to anything that ever came out of Lasem at the time – and no one has ever seen this before! It’s the same gorgeous red as Lasem’s. That red is no longer produced there and so the batiks provides additional information about West Javanese batik that not many people were very interested in before. Of course, now in Lasem they also no longer produce the same distinctive red as they used to because firstly the water used in the process is now polluted and has more chalk in it than before and all these things change the composition of the chemicals in the water and affect the colour of the dye. From the 1800s until today Garut was using Tasikmalaya patterns and vice versa but the glorious red is gone. In Rama V’s collection are 15 pieces from that area and I tell you opening one by one all those rare Sundanese batiks was a thrill!”
Researchers for Rama V’s collection went to the town of Garut in West Java where King Rama stayed for a period. They found that the regional government of Garut have produced a book about King Rama’s visit but the Sundanese do not have information about the batik produced in West Java or Sundaland between 1871 and 1901 when King Rama visited Indonesia.
King Rama was interested in all sorts of styles and motifs from the most refined aristocratic batiks made by highly skilled crafts women to the rustic batiks of ordinary people. Sometimes, he bought batiks from simple traders at railway stations or from hawkers he met during the course of his journeys.
“The king made detailed notes about his batiks noting where he bought a particular, batik, the name of the motif, who had made it or sold it to him and the price that he paid for it and that provides textile experts with an enormous amount of information about 19th century batiks,” explained Raffy Sarttarat, the exhibition curator. It is this together with the fact that they are in an extremely well-preserved condition that makes this collection so valuable.
“Nineteenth century batiks are quite rare and finding them in such a fine condition and representing so many styles with copious notes! It is frankly quite amazing and does a great service to the history of Indonesian batik, said Waworuntu.
Among the important batiks in King Rama V’s collection are five batiks by Carolina Josephina David von Franquemont who is the earliest known producer of Batik Belanda or batik influenced by the European style. Her pieces which date between 1840 when she first opened her atelier and 1867 when she died, are extremely rare. Von Franquemont’s atelier was located on the slopes of Mount Ungaran near Semarang. Her batiks were purchased during Rama V’s first trip in 1871. This means that they were at least four years old if they were produced the year she died. Von Franquemont’s batiks were very fashionable at the time and of high quality. “There are no signatures on the Von Franquemont batiks, “ explained Judi Achjadi. So photographs were sent to Harmen Veldhuizen who identified them. It is not easy to identify Von Franquemont batiks as no official identifying marks of her batiks have ever been agreed upon. Veldhuizen is convinced that two of them are definitely Von Franquemont batiks and the remaining three are most likely Von Franquemont batiks or possibly by Van Oosterom. Looking at the content and patterns I agree with him. Rama V’s journal also mentions that they are quite old.”
Finally, there are quite a few batiks in the collection from the Jogjakarta workshop of Wilhelmina van Lawick van Pabst, a relatively little known batik maker barely mentioned in Harmen Veldhuisen’s seminal book “Batik Belanda.
“Frankly we were puzzled by the batiks produced by Van Lawick van Pabst and we made enquiries in Jogjakarta about her workshop but no one had heard of her,” explained Mariah Waworuntu. “The only thing we were able to discover was a letter in the Paku Alaman library about a batik worker wishing to work for the Paku Alaman who said that she had once worked at the atelier of Mantji Lawek. Sandra Niessen a Canadian Dutch textile expert who mainly specializes in Batak cloths was part of the exhibition research team and she was finally able to work out that the abbreviation of Wilhelmina is Mientje which was probably pronounced Mantji by the Javanese workers.”
Later during the teams visit to Holland Niessen discovered in the archives in Leiden newspaper clippings at the end of the 19th century about Wilhelmina van Lawick van Pabst, a Chinese lady married to a Dutchman who had an atelier in Jogjakarta where King Rama V was brought and from whom he purchased several batiks. “Her strength lay in her blues which were extremely vibrant and dark which they have remained till today. There are nearly no batiks by Van Lawick van Pabst in existence other than those in the collection of Rama V. So, they really are important historical artifacts in the history of batik,” commented Mariah Waworuntu.
“Van Lawick van Pabstproduced batiks from the late 19th century till about the turn of the century or very early 20th century,” explained Judi Achjadi. “Mrs Van Zuylen on the other hand continued producing batik until her death in 1946. So, she produced batiks for nearly half a century. Clearly there were far more Van Zuylen batik created and so many more also survived. Her batiks were sold everywhere: in the Malays areas of eastern Sumatra, Riau and Siak, in Singapore and Malaysia, in northern Sulawesi and many other places. Van Lawick van Pabst batiks were mainly bought by the Dutch and went into some of the royal collections. He had Van Lawick van Pabst batiks but no Van Zuylen or Metz batiks because he never went to Pekalongan. This is why it is not a complete collection although it is a very valuable and interesting one.”
Despite not having had the opportunity to visit Pekalongan there are however pieces from the atelier of Mrs A. F. J. Jans of Pekalongan. She was the only Dutch lady who had a batik atelier in Pekalongan where she lived with her Dutch husband Theodor J. Jans on the Heerenstaraat and produced many floral batiks with bouquets. King Rama V bought the Jans batiks from hawkers who came by his hotel (not in Pekalongan) and offered them to him. King Rama V’s collection has expanded the known number of batiks produced by her.
Three members of the Thai royal family have been involved with Indonesian textiles and have thereby influenced both Thai and Indonesian textiles, namely HM King Rama V, HM Queen Sirikit and HRH Princess Sirindhorn. A Royal Treasure: The Javanese Batik Collection of King Chulalongkorn of Siam, is a very important exhibition. Not only for batik or for Thailand and Indonesia but for ASEAN as a whole which really should stress such links between ASEAN member states. The question that obviously comes to mind is why there is no plan to make this into a travelling exhibition. Not merely to Indonesia and fellow ASEAN states but also to Australia, Europe, America and other Asian countries. It will not only promote Thailand and Indonesia – but also ASEAN cultural traditions. With the Indonesian government’s new cultural strategy as the basis for our foreign policy, supporting this exhibition would make eminent sense – as would ASEAN providing funding for this truly important historical ASEAN cultural exhibition. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)