Place of Origin: Thailand
Date: Mid-19th Century
A highly unusual knife from mid-19th century Thailand, the wooden hilt is carved in the form of a dragon swallowing (or regurgitating) a European man. This enlarged European head is a real anomaly. With distinctly non-Asian features and a head of long, curly hair he is quite distinctive—what was the thought behind this creation, and who is this man? Certainty, the figure has not been carved merely on a whim: it is masterful work and the artisan has even taken the trouble to depict the man’s hands as he tries to escape the jaws of the beast.
The blade is forged from pattern-welded steel and displays an interesting ‘bird’s-eye’ pattern. The hilt’s collar and scabbard are both made from silver and engraved with gilded floral and foliate designs that are set against a contrasting black niello background. Sir George Birdwood, who is mentioned as part of Item 27 of this catalogue, proposed the following description for niello:
“Niello is the process and the result of annealing (literally ‘blackening’ or ‘nielloing’) or fixing by fusion on a decoratively incised polished metal (usually silver but occasionally gold) surface, an opaque, black (non-mercurial) amalgam of silver, copper and lead.” (1)
The dragon of the handle shares its form with a more conventional, but still rather scarce, Thai dha sword which has a hilt that is carved from ivory (see Item 11 of this catalogue). A crack brought on by the dagger’s age, now stable, can be seen on one side of the grip.
There is little question that this dagger was made for somebody of importance—and certainly not for exportation due to the subject of the hilt. The high-quality gold niello work suggests an owner of Siamese royalty and the subject matter implies it was made at a time when affairs with the West were tense.
One possible candidate for the figure’s identity is the Englishman Sir John Bowring. He was an important figure in Siamese relations with the West and was the fourth governor of Hong Kong. Certainly, a painting of him in the National Portrait Gallery, London (ref. NPG-1113) (2) bears an uncanny resemblance to our subject, but does history provide a reason for Bowring to be so ill-depicted? It does indeed. In 1855, he visited Siam to negotiate a trade treaty with King Mongkut—a treaty that would end up being one-sided and leaving the Siamese royal family with great resentment.
Of course, this could all be coincidental—a chance likeness—but the figure’s physical resemblance to Bowring is genuinely striking: the distinctive and long curly hair (not a common feature in European men); the large, aquiline nose; the thin lips; the well-defined, square jaw.
Finally, an English-made commemorative knife has come to my attention and it adds a further facet to this story. The blade bears a banner-scroll that reads, “Peace & Plenty, Unity & Concord” and “Between Siam and Great Britain 1855”. The maker’s details are stamped in the blade’s corner (Moseley & Son, 17 & 18 New Street, Covent Garden, London) and the carved boxwood hilt is in the form of a scantily-clad lady carrying sheaves of wheat on her head. Perhaps the English knife was presented to the Siamese royal family by Bowring as part of the treaty and they commissioned this rather less amicable version in reply.
Provenance: London art market.
(1) Birdwood, George. Journal of the Society of Arts; London 48 (Nov 17, 1899): 250.