The ariticle from Bangkok Post Newspaper on March 20th, 2001
by Suthon Sukphisit on March 20, 2001
The camera never lies
Or does it? Photographs of Bangkok and surrounding provinces
taken almost 150 years ago were assumed to be the work of a western
artist-but recent examination has found them to belong to a Thai
and so history must be rewritten
The Bangkok of an earlier era can still be seen in a number
of old photographs of the city that have become familiar over
Most of them show famous, much-visited places like Wat Phra Kaew,
Wat Po, and Wat Arun, and evidence in them has led us to deduce
that they were taken during the reign of King Rama IV (1851-1868)
or King Rama V (1868-1910). It has also been assumed that the
photographer was a foreigner.
But more recently the real story of these images and their history
has come to light, and we now know that those assumptions are
false. In their original state, the photographs were intended
to be attached to each other to form panoramas.
A panoramic of Bangkok taken during the reign of King Rama IV
There are some taken from Wat Arun in Thon Buri that show Wat
Phra Kaew, the Grand Palace, Wat Po, and Tha Tien. Others, taken
from the Bangkok side, show the bend in the Chao Phraya River
with Wat Arun and the area where Siriraj Hospital stands today.
The most amazing thing about these photographs is that they were
taken from a high angle. The point of perspective is elevated
to exactly right level to show the landscape and buildings to
best effect, and it would be impossible to achieve the same effect
We also know definitely now that the pictures were taken during
the reign of King Rama IV and, importantly, that they are the
work of a Thai photographer.
Francis Chit Court photographer during the reign of King Rama
The reason we know them today as separate images rather than
panoramas is that they were stolen by a foreigner who cut them
apart and retained only the parts that he wanted. Once it was
discovered that the images were segments of panoramic views,
and their date was determined, it was found that they clearly
documented information contained in the historical records of
As a result, existing ideas as to the dates of certain events
and the ages of certain people had to be corrected. For example,
the assumed ages of the moral artist Khrua Inkhong and of Sunthon
Phu, Thailand's greatest poet, were adjusted.
The credit for unearthing the secret story of the photographs
and for all the exciting discoveries that followed goes to Pipat
Pongrapeeporn, the director of the Art and Culture Foundation
"I collect old books and act as a consultant to Christie's
Auction House," he explained. "A few years ago some
old drawings were being auctioned, and I became acquainted with
a foreigner who was one of the world's greatest book collectors.
As a collector he used the name J.G.S.
"He had a file of old photographs of Bangkok that contained
27 photos of which it was written that they were the work of
a western photographer named Wilhelm Burger, who had arrived
in Thailand aboard an Austrian ship, the S.M. Frigate Donau,
"The collector wanted to sell the photographs, but wanted
to determine first whether the captions on them were accurate,
when they were taken, and how much they were worth at their current
value. I was very interested in the pictures myself, so I agreed
to check the data for him.
"One reason was that I had seen some of the old photographs
in the National Archives in Bangkok. Most had no captions identifying
the photographer or giving dates, but there were some that had
explanations stating that they were the work of a Thai photographer
whose Christian name was Francis Chit and whose Thai name was
Khunsunthonsathitlak, or "Khoonsoondradislacks" as
it is spelled in the captions.
"Francis Chit was a court photographer during the reign
of King Rama IV, and some of the pictures in the National Archives
that were attributed to him were the same as the ones in J.G.S.'s
file. I began wondering what the real story was.
"Firstly, it is important to know something about Francis
Chit. He had studied photography with foreigners beginning in
the reign of King Rama III and acquired a high degree of skill.
He entered the civil service as a photographer associated with
Somdej Phra Pin Klao, King Rama IV's modern-thinking younger
"He attained a high position and used very modern photographic
equipment. Besides working for the court, he also accepted photography
work from outside. We don't know when Francis Chit began taking
pictures, but we do have an advertisement that he placed in the
Bangkok Recorder newspaper on January 14, 1865 stating his availability
for any kind of photographic work, and also offering for sale
views of Bangkok.
"This advertisement indicates that he had a complete set
of photographic equipment of the kind that would be needed to
offer his services to the society of the time, the last years
of King Rama IV's reign. We also know that he died in 1891, which
means that he was taking pictures for more than 20 years.
Ratchavoradis Pier as seen from the Thon Buri side of the Chao
"When checking photographs, it is necessary to examine them
closely and make comparisons with contemporary documents like
letters and daily records. We have a complete selection of such
documents from this period. In the old days the photographs had
to be gone over with a magnifying glass, but today it's much
easier, because we can use computers. After they are scanned,
they can be enlarged to any size.
"It really starts to get interesting when you find a detail
that arouses suspicion. The first thing about the photos in J.G.S.'s
file that you notice is that they show sites that are close to
each other, and that are photographed from the same high angle.
When I tried placing them next to each other, they formed what
looked like a panoramic view. The pictures in that file were
from two panoramas.
"Once I had those, I tried combining the Francis Chit photographs
that we already had, and these turned out to comprise five additional
sets, adding up to seven in all. Looking at the first set, taken
from the Bangkok side of the river, you can see the Chao Phraya
and Wat Arun. I was very surprised to see that the river was
full of western commercial vessels. Almost 300 ship masts are
visible. Since each ship has three masts, there must have been
almost 100 of them.
"Contemporary records show that in November 1864 commercial
ships were coming to buy rice to sell in China, as at the time
there was a famine there. Almost 100 of them came at once. This
was a major event, very unusual, because usually only about 100
ships arrived in the course of an entire year, and here they
were in a single month. I looked at the November 7, 1864 issue
of the Bangkok Calendar newspaper, which also reported that there
were almost 100 boats on the Chao Phraya River.
"One panorama of Bangkok shows the Grand Palace and Wat
Po when it was being extended. You can see Wat Rachapradit under
construction-the structures of the ubosot [prayer hall] and the
chedi are visible. Contemporary records state clearly that King
Rama IV ordered the construction of this temple in 1864, and
that it was completed very quickly. It only took about 10 months.
"At this point I began to suspect that the photographs couldn't
have been taken by Wilhelm Burger, because the records showed
that the S.M. Frigate Donau arrived in Thailand in May 1869,
and only remained here for 20 days. Other pictures in the folder
of photos allegedly taken by him showed Hin Phimai Palace and
photographs taken in Phitsanulok and Phetchaburi, with the information
that they were taken at the same time.
"In addition to the fact that the times indicated were five
years apart, it would have been impossible to have taken pictures
in three provinces and at various places in Bangkok, in only
20 days. In those days you had to travel by ox and cart!
"Also, to take photographs from such a high angle it would
have been necessary to build a special raised platform. This
would have had to have been ordered by someone prominent. And
a lot of time and manpower would have been necessary to take
"So we can nail a crime here: the foreign photographer stole
these pictures from the Thai photographer. And the thief wasn't
aware that they formed a panorama. The reason he could claim
them for his own was probably because they were of such high
quality that it would appear that only a famous western photographer
would have been able to take them.
"There are many other factors that prove that the pictures
were brazenly stolen. But these sets of pictures are interesting
for other reasons, and are valuable for the new information that
they give us. There are photos taken inside the ubosot of Wat
Bowon Nives. Today they are covered with murals painted by one
of Thailand's greatest mural artists, Khrua Inkhong. He painted
Thai murals in a western style.
"It was originally thought that he was active during the
reign of King Rama III. But in these pictures there are no murals
on the walls or pillars. Since we know that these photographs
were taken toward the end of the reign of King Rama IV (1851-1868),
we have to revise our knowledge of Khrua Inkhong's dates. There
had already been some disagreement about the dates, but these
photos prove that he worked during the reign of King Rama IV,
and once we know this, it also has an impact on our knowledge
of the poet Sunthon Phu.
"There is a book by S. Thammayot, the author of Phra Chao
Krung Siam, that was banned in Thailand back in about 1947. It
attacks King Rama IV. In the book it says that Khrua Inkhong
painted two portraits, one of King Rama IV, the other of Sunthon
Phu. The king became angry. He wanted to know why it was necessary
to paint Sunthon Phu, too.
"We believe that Sunthon Phu was a poet who was born during
the reign of King Rama II but who lived into the reign of King
Rama IV. We also believe that poems and books were written in
response to events that transpired at the time. If something
noteworthy took place, it was taken up and incorporated into
a poem or book.
"Sunthon Phu, it has been claimed, was an artist whose work
came from his imagination. He foresaw things that later turned
out to be true. I don't believe this. For example, in his long
poem, Phra Aphaimanee, the scene is the same as the area next
to the Royal Palace. Then there is the character Nang Laweng.
I think she is based on Anna Leonowens. All of these influences
belong to the reign of King Rama IV.
"I think we will have to revise our ideas about Sunthon
Phu and his dates if we compare real locations in Bangkok and
the versions of them contained in his work. As for other details,
specialists will have to help analyse them.
Pipat will display the panoramic views of Bangkok at the Thailand
Cultural Centre around the end of April. "It will be a major
exhibit of the city's historical past," he said.
In addition to the historical information the photographs contain,
they show that the Bangkok of almost a century and a half ago
was already a beautiful place. They also make it clear that the
artistic aspects of photography had already been mastered by
a gifted Thai.
April 21st-May 13th, 2001
at Thailand Cultural Centre