Prince Naris: The Great Craftsman of Siam

Prince Naris at Ban Plainern. (Photo by Ban Plai Nern)

Art enthusiasts raise a glass to this talented artist, architect, musician, and writer on his birthday

April 28 is an important date for art enthusiasts and the culturally aware as it marks the birthday of Prince Narisaranuvattiwongse or Prince Naris, and is the only day that Ban Plai Nern, his residence, is opened to the public. But with the Covid-19 pandemic continuing to rage, no visiting is being allowed as this historical residence is closed for the second consecutive year.

Prince Naris is known as the Great Craftsman of Siam for his excellence and talent in many art fields, architecture, literature, drawing, painting, music, traditional Thai design, and stage plays, as well as for his knowledge of history and culture. He is also the second Thai to have been honoured by UNESCO as a “Person of International Importance”.

Born in 1863, Prince Naris was a son of King Mongkut or King Rama IV. His artistic skills became obvious while he was still a child. At the age of 10, he drew a picture of a solar eclipse, a rendition so outstanding that it won the top prize from King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V). His drawing was later published in an international astronomy journal.

Prince Naris learned to draw by himself. When he was a child, art was not taught in school. In fact, there were no schools in Thailand: The first was established only in 1883. There were no art museums either. So the young prince taught himself by going to the temple, looking at the mural paintings, and coming back home to draw what he saw and remembered. Sometimes, he watched real artists at work, observing how they painted, mixed colours, and made paintbrushes. Then, again, he went back home and tried out these techniques by himself.

Baan Plainern by Trichak Chitrabongs.

He continued to absorb knowledge as he grew up, reading books, many from western countries, and studying western art, which is very different from traditional Thai art. He also had the opportunity to work with national and foreign artists who were hired by the Siamese government, including Corrado Feroci, the Italian sculptor considered the father of modern art in Thailand and who was instrumental in founding Silpakorn University.

With his deep understanding of both Siamese and western arts, Prince Naris was able to create works in both styles. He could draw two-dimensional Thai art very well and also excelled in the three-dimensional drawings practiced by Western artists. On one occasion, wanting to draw a horse, he installed a beautifully proportioned and well-muscled steed in his garden to serve as his model, an approach very different from the traditional style of drawing.

Portrait of Prince Naris

In addition to his artworks, Prince Naris designed several buildings that remain landmarks of Thailand to this day. Wat Benjamabopit or the Marble Temple, for example, is one of his masterpieces. The elegant white stone temple is recognised as one of the most beautiful examples of Thai architecture and is on the must-visit list for foreign visitors. The temple has been featured in many videos and materials to promote Thai tourism.

He was the first Thai artist to create mixed media art and a good example of this is Wat Rajatiwat Temple for which Prince Naris designed both the building and all the decorations by combining different art styles. While the building followed traditional Thai architectural norms, some decorations were made in Khmer style and the mural paintings inside were created using the Fresco painting technique. Despite this mix, everything blends well together and the temple still maintains its function as a Buddhist place of worship.

Prince Naris was also a great historian, a writer, and a musician. He played several Thai musical instruments and wrote many songs, among them the sweet “Lao Duang Duan” and “Khamen Sai Yok”. In addition to the stage plays he penned, his letters to his brother Prince Damrong Rajanubhab are regarded as cultural treasures.

Prince Naris in Java. (Photo courtesy of Chitrabongs family)

After the revolution in 1932, Prince Damrong went to Penang to stay away from politics in Thailand. The two princes then started to write letters to each other, exchanging views on many subjects from art and culture to history, archaeology, music, dance, literature, and social changes. The letters were later collected and published under the title “Sarn Somdej” (the Princes’ Letters) and became the reference books on art and culture.

Although born in the Grand Palace as a prince, Prince Naris lived a simple life with his family in a small house, which he called “Ban Plai Nern”. The wooden Thai-style house at the front served as his “office” where he designed and created his masterpieces. Next to this wooden house is another one-story building where traditional Thai music and dance classes are held as his great grandchildren wanted to preserve and transfer their skills to the younger generation. At the back is a simple two-story concrete building without any lavish decoration where he lived and died.

April 28, 2021 is Prince Naris’158th birthday anniversary. Although he is not here to celebrate his birthday, his works are well celebrated and appreciated by the young generation of art enthusiasts.

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