Ref. Number: 1107

Country: Thailand

Material: Lacquered wood

Detail of lacquered shutter

Detail of lacquered shutter

Thailand is known as the leading exponent of the art of gold leaf decoration on lacquer in Southeast-Asia. The raw material for lacquer decoration in Thailand is the sap of the Melanorrhoea usitata, a tree native to southeast Asia, Which grows wild up to elevation of 3000 feet. When tapped this tree emits a grey viscous liquid which turns to a glossy black on exposure to the air. The object to be decorated receives at least three successive coats of lacquer so that it acquires a lustrous smoothly polished surface.

Using a pen or a brush with a very fine pine, the craftsman carefully paints a freehand design with a water-soluble solution of gamboges, a yellow gummy resin. He paints only those parts of the design on which he wishes to retain the original black colour. The area to which gold is to adhere is left unpainted and is a negative of the design. A thin coat of lacquer or varnish is applied to those portions of the design which are to be covered with gold leaf. Tissue-thin square of gold leaf are then pressed over the entire surface with a wad of cotton wool.

Detail of lacquered shutter

Detail of lacquered shutter

After drying in an underground cellar for twenty to twenty four hours, but before the lacquer is absolutely hard, the entire object is washed with water to remove the excess of gold leaf, varnish and yellow colouring matter. Thai lacquer work is referred to as lai rod nam which literally means ornaments washed with water. On contact with water the fully detailed gold leaf designs appear as if by magic against a glossy black background. The object is then returned to the cellar to harden.

Sometimes outlines of designs may be directly painted on to the surface of an object with gold paint. The background features such as trees and building may be highlighted with colour pigments, while the main figures are wrought in gold leaf using the lai rod nam technique.

Detail of lacquered shutter

Detail of lacquered shutter

Gilded lacquer decoration originated from China, but it is not yet known at what period and by what route this technique came to Thailand. The earliest extant examples of lai rod nam were made in the seventeenth century during Ayuthaya period.

These early works are noted for their lively finely drawn animal and human figures set amidst traditional floral and vegetal kranok flame type decoration. These early works display a most subtle and harmonious balance between the gold leaf decoration and the black lacquer ground.

This style of decoration continued into the early Bangkok / Rattanakosin period (1782-1851). At the same time, panoramic-type pictures rendered in the style of a Thai painting began to become popular in lai rod nam work. These usually depict scenes from the life of the Buddha and his previous existences, and the ever-popular Ramayana story.

Detail of lacquered shutter

Detail of lacquered shutter

During the Bangkok / Rattanakosin period, particularly during and after the reign of RamaIII (1824 – 1851) Chinese influence gradually became more prevalent in gold leaf lacquer decoration. Gnarled trees with sinous branches ending in sprigs of foliage amidst craggy twisted rocks provide a backdrop to scenes depicting traditional Thai figures. The blank empty spaces characteristic of Chinese work are occasionally relieved by flying butterflies and birds.

Although the gold leaf technique may be used to decorate a wide variety of everyday objects such as small boxes, vases and other vessels, the finest craftsmanship was usually reserved for objects intended for religious or royal use. The act of gilding in the Buddhist world is considered a meritorious deed and the best examples may be seen on window and door panels designed for palaces and wat (temples) compounds.

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