A man of quiet nature and un-flamboyant taste, he lived quietly in Clapham, London working as a chemist. In the beginning of the 20th century he seems to have struck up a friendship, at least remotely, with R. L. Hobson, keeper of Oriental ceramics at the British Museum. If he knew Hobson is not known, but that he was deeply influenced by Hobson is a fact. In 1923 Hobson co-published The Art of the Chinese Potter which found its way into Thornhill’s study. There he must have pored over the images, delighting in the variety of skill of the Chinese potter. A keen visitor to the British Museum, he started collecting cautiously, buying a commonly seen famille rose plate as his first acquisition.

Qianlong Chinese export plate. Qianlong Chinese export plate.

This didn’t seem the most exciting start as these plates were seen in countless homes. Remnants from the days of the East India Company, they were imported in the 18th century in hundreds and thousands. Or even millions. So one of these plates would not have been expensive. Instantly recognisable though, it was a good place to start. Many collectors start with the easy things – items that do not require in depth research and may be recognised easily by visiting acquaintances. Slowly but surely he would have been drawn in, sitting at the back of the many country house sales that one after the other occurred in the beginning of the last century.

He met the reputable dealers Bluett’s – most fortuitously, and they guided him well through his burgeoning collection. He bought a large variety of Song bowls, numerous Han funerary wares, urns, incense burners, wells. Items that would have accompanied the dead into their tombs.

Han incense burner. Han incense burner.

More and more funerary items were being unearthed literally in China and were finding their way to Europe. These fascinated collectors and they swiftly replaced blue and white porcelain as the item to collect. Song brown and white-glazed wares grew in the collection, with some superbly glazed examples. This Song dynasty jar with broad brush strokes and a gleaming glaze defies logic in its pristine condition.

Song black ware jar. Song black ware jar.

This white-rimmed bowl shows the ingenuity of the potter in combining various glazes. Proto- porcelain bowls of varying types, showing the potter’s struggle to find the recipe for a translucent ceramic paste.

Song cizhou northern black ware bowl. Song cizhou northern black ware bowl.

Moving up through the centuries Thornhill bought various extremely rare pieces of Ming porcelain. Rarest of them all is a stem cup with a Xuande imperial mark. (1426-35). In near pristine condition, there is no current record of how Thornhill acquired this piece, although the theory is he purchased it from Bluett’s in 1930’s. Of extremely fine porcelain, the cup bears the reign mark within a double ring on the inside of the cup, the foot filled with an unglazed and unmarked base. Stem cups like these are rarely seen outside museums. The British Museum and the Percival David Foundation have but a few, the majority being at the Palace Museums in Beijing and Taipei.

Other Ming pieces include several rare Longqing mark and period blue and white wares, including a rectangular box unfortunately missing its cover. The Longqing emperor reigned for only 5 years – and the kilns were destroyed by floods, so very few examples survive.

Longqing box. Longqing box.

Another treasure in the Thornhill collection includes an albarello, or drug jar. This is one of only three or four known examples in the world. Decorated in blue and white the text round the waist corresponds to its original contents. A copy of an Italian blue-glazed pottery chemist’s jar intended to store a mild laxative, this piece must have amused Thornhill greatly. It is one of the earliest examples of export ware and a direct copy of a known Italian or Dutch piece, which would have been brought out to China to be copied.

Transitional albarello. Transitional albarello.

Moving forward into the 18th century, there are a few superb examples of imperial porcelain. A Yongzheng mark and period chrysanthemum dish of a café au lait hue, would have once been part of a set, a group of which can be seen at the Percival David Collection at the British Museum.

Yongzheng chrysanthemum dish. Yongzheng chrysanthemum dish.

Other fine examples of imperial porcelain are the ‘Palace Bowls’, a group of varying colours and motifs with reign marks of Daoguang. Thornhill must have come across these at a reasonable price, collecting way before his time. 19th century imperial ceramics were sniffed at by many but those who bought early, bought very well. These bowls now fetch staggering amounts at auction.

Palace bowls. Palace bowls.

Apart from the imperial ceramics, Thornhill collected some superb examples of monochromes, many without imperial marks. This alluded to his interest in the study of Chinese ceramics rather than the investment thereof. There are examples of robin’s egg glaze, tea-dust glaze, dark blue and aubergine glazes, oil spot or lizard skin-glaze, flambé and sang-de- boeuf. These examples, had they been imperially marked would have been valued at ten times the price at least, however he was clearly interested in the variety and skill, again, of the Chinese potter. This brings us neatly to the grand finale of Thornhill’s plan.

Mixed monochrome group. Mixed monochrome group.

In 1929, Thornhill wrote to the then Stoke-on- Trent Techical College notifying them of his wish to bequeath his collection to them. They were slightly baffled by his request, as Thornhill was not known to them. His generous gift was intended to benefit the students as a study collection to be handled and examined, in Stoke-on- Trent which was of course the home of British ceramics. A suitable gift in many ways. At the outbreak of the war, Thornhill transferred his collection to the Technical College for safekeeping. Thornhill died in 1944 and during the aftermath of the war, no one had time nor funds to deal with the bequest. It was many years later, in the late 1970’s that Professor Flavia Swann together with Suning Sun-Bailey, embarked upon cataloguing the collection, aided by Spink who carried out a valuation for insurance purposes. It was exhibited in 1988 and a paper on the collection was published in the Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society 1983/4. Since then (the now) Staffordshire University have been planning a way forward with the collection. Thornhill’s wish was that the collection would be available to students for further study and to enable this, it was decided to sell the stem cup at auction to finance the project. The remainder of the collection will be exhibited in purpose built premises in Stoke on Trent in due course. Who knows what the stem cup will fetch when it is sold by auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull in Hong Kong on 31 st May at the Liangyi Museum on Hollywood Road. Time will tell. Staffordshire University’s intent is for their students and indeed students all over the world, to benefit from the collection which will be on permanent display in a centre for ceramic studies together with a comprehensive illustrated catalogue to accompany the exhibit. Check out the Sale! 

To be part of the team working on this project has been a great honour and I have learnt more from this than any other. It has become very clear that Thornhill collected this vast variety of wares with study and connoisseurship in mind. From the start this seemed to have been his ambition with R. L. Hobson guiding him through it. We do hope that students, collectors and Asian art enthusiasts from all over the world will find their way to Stoke-on- Trent to celebrate the History of Collecting – and the memory of the great lesser-known Ernest Thornhill.

Stemcup mark. Stemcup mark.


More information here! 


/Anna Westin