Games of Sophistication: The History of Siamese Altar Table Decoration
Thai altar table decorations or “kruang toh” are a Chinese import. The provenance of their popularity among the Thai upper classes is likely linked to the porcelain pieces sourced from abroad for the construction of a Chinese-style palace garden in the reign of King Rama II.
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When the Siamese diplomatic convoy to China returned home bearing news of a palace and lavish residences amply decorated in many different types of porcelain ware, their accounts were used as a reference for the design of the palace garden, which invigorated interest in Chinese altar decorations among the Thai aristocracy and bourgeoisie. Collecting Chinese altar decorations became an established pastime among the Siamese upper class. Following the first altar table decoration competition organized as part of the celebrations for the restoration of the royal temple in the reign of King Rama III, private collections were exhibited and scored in altar table competitions that remained popular well into the reign of King Rama IV. To this day, it is said that no altar table decoration competition could ever surpass those held at the residence of Somdet Chaophraya Borom Maha Sri Suriwongse (Chuang Bunnag), a close aide of the royal family during the reigns of Rama IV and V.
There are five elements to a traditional Chinese altar table arrangement: the joss-stick holder, vase, porcelain screen, candlestick holder and incense burner container. Later elaborations to the original set added an offering bowl for fruits, incense holder and flower vase. Over time, the Siamese variation of the altar table arrangement became ever more beautiful and extravagant, as noble families vied with each other to procure large matching altar table sets made of china or blue-and-white porcelain, sparing no expense or effort. To qualify for an altar table decoration competition, contenders had to have the eight staples of an altar table set, which are a porcelain screen, flower vase, tall cylindrical vase, joss stick holder, incense burner container, offering bowl for fruit, small flower vase and a pair of candlestick holders. Then, each family would add their own touch to their arrangement with other embellishments.
Attentive to the burgeoning appetite for altar table decorations, Phraya Choduek Ratchasetthi (Puk), one of the leading importers of Chinese porcelain in the early Rattanakosin period, sought the permission of Phra Chao Borommawong Thoe Kromma Khun Ratchasiha Wikrom (the twelfth son of King Rama III) to reproduce the pieces in his altar table decoration collection. He then commissioned production of the facsimiles in China and imported them into Siam under the name “Toh Kim Tung”. However, the growing availability of altar table decorations had an inverse effect on demand, for once they entered the mass market, collectors’ efforts to source matching altar table sets no longer held the prestige it once did. Yet not long afterwards, altar table decorations would experience a renaissance in 1887, when King Rama V re-assembled and exhibited an altar table decoration set with matching cabbage designs from the collection of King Rama II, reviving interest in altar table decoration collecting among the aristocracy and nobility of the era. The period also saw the organization of an altar table decoration competition reputed as the grandest in the history of the tradition, at the royal cremation ceremony of Princess Nabhachara Chamrassrim, one of King Rama V’s daughters.
A blue and white porcelain rectangular stand painted within panel with landscape design alternated with floral vine scrolls on a blue ground
Dimensions: W 14 cm. H 12 cm.
Circa: 19th Century
Estimated Price: 30,000 – 40,000 THB
Starting Price: 14,000 THB