Monday, October 7, 2013

The Glessners' Siamese punch bowl

On September 21, 2013, the Chicago History Museum opened a new exhibit entitled “The Queen and the White City,” which celebrates the grand introduction of Siam (modern Thailand) on the world’s stage at the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893.  The exhibit features artifacts from the fair, returning to Chicago for the first time in 120 years, as well as an elaborately embroidered photo album in the Museum’s collection presented by Queen Savang Vadhana to Bertha Palmer, President of the fair’s Board of Lady Managers.  The exhibit runs through March 2, 2014. 

Glessner House Museum is fortunate to possess a beautiful artifact from the Siamese exhibit at the Columbian Exposition – a silver niello punch bowl - purchased by John and Frances Glessner when the fair closed 120 years ago this month.  Most people in the United States had seen few, if any, articles from Siam, so their exhibits proved to be of great interest.  The following description of the Siam pavilion in the Manufactures Building is taken from a guidebook published for visitors to the fair:

“Across the promenade from Hayti is the building of Siam.  It is a royal pavilion, erected by the Siamese government, from a design by a native architect. Native wood and other material and native labor alone were used in its construction.  It is a small building, twenty-six feet square, with a front elevation of thirty-two feet.  The wood used is teak, of the fine kind used in the building of the Malay proas, and the façade and roof have been beautifully carved and gilded.  These carvings, all done by hand, are exquisitely beautiful, and represent the work of the best Siamese artists.  Although her displays are not confined to this building, Siam here shows many exhibits of gems,  rosins, dyes, silks, cottons, grains and a very fine display of manufactured and leaf tobacco.  Some of the native boats are wonderful, and the work of the native women is very fine.”

Excerpts from an article about the pavilion, which appeared in the Chicago Tribune on May 29, 1893, provide further details:

“For concentrated splendor and condensed costliness, the Siamese pavilion and exhibit excel anything in the Manufactures building . . . its contents are estimated to be worth $300,000.

“The pavilion itself is a more than usually interesting one, as it was made in Siam, and is an exact reproduction of the garden house of the King, at Bangkok, and is the identical Siamese pavilion of the Paris Exposition, a little rusty in some places, but almost as good as new.  Its floor is elevated four steps above the dais on which it stands.  It is supported by several slender pillars, and is open all around.  On each of the four sides the roof is a sharp gable, and in the center is drawn up to a sharp point, and loaded with ornament.

“The material is wood painted red and yellow, and inlaid everywhere with bits of glass of various bright colors.  The effect is excessively bizarre, and the structure almost looks like a huge piece of jewelry.”

Siam also exhibited in the Transportation, Ethnological, and Forestry Buildings, but it was their extensive exhibit in the Manufactures Building that attracted the most attention.  In The Official Directory of the World’s Columbian Exposition published by the W. B. Gonkey Company in 1893, a full 2-1/2 pages are devoted to listing the various articles on display, amongst which were the following:
-Rice, sugar, potatoes, dried fish and meat
-Cigars and tobaccos
-Cotton, hemp, silk
-Agricultural implements and farmers’ tools
-A large exhibit of teak, bamboo, and other woods
-Bones, tortoise shells, elephant tusks plain and carved, horns, antlers
-Siamese fruits in wax and in paintings
-Waxed flowers
-Objects made of rattan, and many examples of basket work
-Vegetables and seeds
-Fishing equipment
-48 varieties of floor matting
-Clothing made of silk, cotton, and embellished with gold thread
-Silk penungs, prince’s state robe and girdle, doublets
-Fancy needlework including large screens and historical scenes
-Precious gems
-Model boats and houses
-Wax model of a palace
-China rice bowls, powder cups, tea cups, spittoons
-Earthen stoves, goblets, jugs and figures of animals
-Fancy scent bottles
-Carvings in ivory, wood and other materials
-Metal work with red or blue enamel work, many set with diamonds
-Gilded water bowls, trays, cups, betel sets
-Silver article including bowls, trays, spittoons, urns, vases, toilet articles, and picnic cases
-Brass articles including fruit knives, utensils, seed picks, eating services
-Copper rice pots, cake pans, and water pots
-Pearl inlaid work including salvers, trays, boxes, plaques and cases
-Lacquered boxes and bowls
-Tiger, leopard, armadillo, python, rhinoceros and other skins
-Gold-beaters' anvils, hammers and other tools
-Native instruments
-Bead work including tea cozies, biscuit boxes, frames, chess sets, and baskets

When the Fair closed in October 1893, some objects were shipped back to Siam but many remained in Chicago.  The next month, Frances Glessner recorded in her journal that “we bought a beautiful punch bowl from Siam – silver and gold.”  Most of the items from the exhibits were donated by the King of Siam to the newly created Columbian Museum, according to an article entitled “Give to the Museum” in the Chicago Tribune dated November 18, 1893:

“The Columbian Museum enjoyed its usual good fortune yesterday, and was the recipient of the following important donations . . .

“King Chululakorn of Siam – All the Siamese exhibits, with their pavilions in the Manufactures, Transportation, Ethnological, and Forest Buildings.  The forestry exhibit, consisting of over 150 beautiful specimens of Siamese woods, though important, does not admit of description.  The ethnological exhibit consists of a great variety of Siamese costumes, household and mechanics’ utensils, weapons of warfare, and models of houses.  The transportation exhibit consists of a complete set of Siamese methods of travel, such as sedan chairs, ox carts, and boats.  The greatest interest attaches to the manufactures exhibit and its gorgeous and well-remembered pavilion.  The articles of manufacture, which must be numbered by the thousand, cover every phase of Siamese life, but running more particularly to jewelry and jewelry boxes.”

Exactly how the Glessners came to acquire their punch bowl, and why it was not included in the gift from the King of Siam to the Columbian Museum is not known.  The ensemble - consisting of a large presentation bowl, three-footed stand with pointed scallop edging, and oversized ladle - is composed of hammered silver with applied gold leaf.  The surface is covered with niello - a black mixture of copper, silver, and lead sulphides - which is used as an inlay to fill in the intricate designs cut into the surface of the pieces.  Siamese artisans were known for their excellent niello work, dating back several centuries, although the process was also used by craftsmen in various parts of Europe since the Iron Age.

The intricate decoration of the punch bowl includes all-over foliate motifs with squirrels and birds amidst flowering boughs, with frolicking rabbits among leaves and hillocks at the base.  The central reserve on the bottom of the bowl (shown above) features a fanciful tiger on cross-hatched hills against a background of stylized rosettes and leaves.  Ironically the beautiful detailing of this section was never visible when the bowl was in use. 

An interesting side note is that a pair of especially fine gilt silver niello teapots, with decoration similar to the punch bowl, was presented to President Franklin Pierce in 1856 by Siam’s King Rama IV.  They are now in the possession of the Smithsonian Institution. 

John Glessner noted of the punch bowl in The Story of a House that “Sir Purdon Clarke of the British Museum said (it) was a museum piece so fine that our Art Institute should keep an eye on it and never let it get away.”  Ironically, the Glessner descendants did donate the pieces to the Art Institute in 1971, but ownership was transferred to the Glessner house in 1972.  Today it continues to occupy a place of honor on the side table in the dining room, exactly where the Glessners displayed it for their guests to enjoy and admire.

NOTE:  During a visit by representatives from the Thai government on March 8, 2014, it was noted that the “punch bowl” is in fact a rice bowl.  Specific designs, including the tiger on the underside and the peonies, indicate that it was originally made for the royal household and then sent for display at the World's Columbian Exposition.

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