John Thomson, a Scotsman who settled in Singapore in 1863, was only beginning his ten-year career as one of the greatest travel photographers of the Far East when he arrived in Bangkok in 1865. Received at the court of King Mongkut, who ruled Thailand as Rama IV from 1851 to 1868, Thomson spent several months in the country, making an excursion to the ruins of Angkor, which he photographed in January 1866, a few months before the arrival of the French photographer M. Gsell (see no. 107). From 1868 to 1872, Thomson assembled his masterly documentation on China, published after he returned to Britain as "Foochow and the River Min" (1873) and the four-volume "Illustrations of China and Its People" (1873-74). A religious reformer who had spent twenty-seven years as a monk, a student of languages, history, and astronomy, and a progressive monarch who set his nation on the path of modernization, King Mongkut is, ironically, better known in the West as the archetypal Oriental despot of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "The King and I." Thomson related in the accounts of his travels his meeting with King Mongkut and described how, on October 6, 1865, he was granted permission to make these two portraits. As the religious leader of his country, the king chose first to be seen as a man of God and, appearing in a spotless white robe, requested to be photographed in prayer. Then he suddenly changed his mind and left the room without explanation. Perplexed by his departure, Thomson appealed to his guide and was told that "the King does everything which is right, and if I were to accost him now, he might conclude his morning's work by cutting off my head!" In fact, the king had simply decided that he preferred to be photographed in military uniform, in the manner of a Western monarch, and he soon returned dressed as a French field marshal. Thomson thereupon made a second picture, showing him in traditional court regalia (106b). These two portraits are the first images in an album of nearly three hundred pictures of Asia assembled by Franklin Blake, a young American from Massachusetts who, as the representative of the Boston trading company Augustine Heard & Co., was a resident of Bangkok at the time of Thomson's visit.
Inscription: Inscribed in ink on album page: "His Majesty Prabat Somdet Pra parameñdr Mahá Mongkut, First Kind of Siam, in State Costume."
[Vision Gallery]; Gilman Paper Company Collection, New York, March 8, 1989