Newsletter - June 2014
The lecture of 17th June heralded the start of our summer break, with the Garden Party to look forward to, and our visit to Kenwood House in Hampstead, before our reunion in September to hear Linda Smith talk to us on the subject of the artist Francis Bacon.
‘Legend and Lustre – Jim Thompson and Thai Silk’ delivered a lecture that covered all the ingredients that the title implied. Denise Heywood introduced us to another world, that of old Bangkok, to a fascinating man, and to his home.
Jim Thompson was an American businessman who created a thriving silk business in what had been the ancient kingdom of Siam. Jim was born in 1906, the son of a wealthy textile merchant. He graduated from Princeton and worked for a time as an architect. He arrived in Thailand in 1945 and opened the Office of Strategic Services, which went on to become part of the CIA, and became military Attaché to the US Embassy. He was an art collector who bought old pieces of silk and realised that this ancient craft was dying out.
To Buddhists, all art is sacred so weavers are depicted on temple walls, producing the Thai sarongs handwoven and dyed with the natural colours such as cochineal, indigo and madder. In Laos in a mural of 1861 a divinity is shown weaving. The designs could be complicated, incorporating symbols to protect the wearer; the weavers were mostly women who passed their skills from mother to daughter, the girls learning as children as part of their education.
The king of Siam had divine status and wore the best of the elaborately patterned brocade; by the 1870s western influence had made its mark. The king is portrayed wearing traditional Thai silk with beautiful leather shoes from the west. The story of the governess, Anna, who taught the wives and children of King Mongkut, King of Siam, which was later made into a book and the popular film ‘The King and I’, opened up contacts between Siam and the west.
It was in 1948 that Jim Thompson started the Thai Silk Company; he went to the north of the country and collected old Bangkok silks. Connie Mangskau helped him set up and run the company. We were told that silk worms are not worms but caterpillars; they only eat mulberry tree leaves, and the product when they form their cocoons is called sericin. To remove the silk thread from the cocoon they are boiled and the thread dyed. Jim used chemical dyes which produced a huge array of lustrous colours unlike the earlier vegetable dyes. It so happened that Jim knew the editor of Vogue and the famous designer Valentina created designs from the fabric supplied by the Thai Silk Company. A feature in Vogue soon followed and then the musical ‘The King and I’ in 1956. The silk from Thailand was an essential feature of the lavish costumes of the film, and the costumes worn an Oscar. The film launched Jim Thompson into western consciousness.
The film also featured traditional Siamese dance; in 1900 a world tour of Siamese dancers visited the Russian Court. It happened that Nijinsky was in the audience and he had been inspired by the ballet troupe of the Royal Siamese court to dance ‘Les Orientales’ which premiered in 1910 with the Ballets Russes.
In 1950 Thompson completed construction of his dream house; this was in fact a reconstruction of several traditional houses that had been dismantled in different parts of the country and shipped down to Bangkok. This became the centre of a social scene of visiting celebrities, including such figures as the Kennedys, and the home of Jim Thompson’s important collection of antique furniture, Chinese porcelain and old Buddhas dating from the 13th century. Today it is a museum - created according to his wishes.
In 1967 he was in Malaysia and went out for a stroll never to be seen again. His disappearance has added to the legend of the most famous American in Thailand, but his legacy – the Thai silk weaving industry – still thrives today.