Photo of items from the Thornhill Collection. Credit: Alex Robson for Lyon & Turnbull
Photo: Alex Robson for Lyon & Turnbull

Ming cup is key to opening up historic collection to students

Photo of Rosy Crehan with the Stem Cup
Rosy Crehan, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, with the Stem Cup

A RARE and valuable Ming cup, bequeathed to Staffordshire University as part of a collection of oriental ceramics, is being sold to benefit future generations of students.

The Stem Cup, which bears the six-character mark of the Emperor of China, Xuande, and dates back to the period of his reign 1425 - 1435, is an excellent example of its type and rarely seen outside museum collections.

The piece has been identified as the single most valuable in a remarkable collection of more than 250 items, bequeathed to Staffordshire University by collector Ernest Thornhill, a pharmacist from London, in 1944.

Having rediscovered the collection, which has been hidden away in storage for a significant number of years, the University has now appointed auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull to sell the Stem Cup so that it can raise funds to build a permanent new home for the remainder of the collection at its Stoke-on-Trent campus.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Rosy Crehan said: “It is clear from the bequest that Ernest Thornhill intended his collection to be used as a study resource. However the value of the entire collection has increased significantly in recent years to the point where the University is not able to house and display it securely. The only reason for selling is so that we can raise the funds to do that.”

These are tremendously exciting times for Staffordshire University and we envisage that proceeds from the sale of the Stem Cup will enable us to comply with the original bequest and give our students full and proper access to this historically significant collection of oriental ceramics – some of which are dated to be over 3,000 years old.

The Collection contains Chinese wares along with a small number of Korean and Japanese pieces. The earliest pieces in the Collection belong to the Shang (1700 –1028 BC) and Zhou (1027–221 BC) dynasties. Ceramic experts, Steven Moore and Anna Westin, have advised that the collection is a rare and rich resource for students, academic researchers and professional practitioners.

Photo of Dave Parkes examining a piece from the collection
Dave Parkes, Associate Director of Information Services, examines a piece from the collection

The Stem Cup will now be shown around the world ahead of its sale in Hong Kong next Spring.

Lee Young, Head of Lyon & Turnbull's Asian Art department, said: “In my industry, it is a privileged position when one is charged with selling an item of such historical importance, and I am thrilled at the prospect of offering this on the behalf of the University during Asia Week Hong Kong 2016. We have assembled a dedicated specialist team comprised of some of the leading lights in Asian art to ensure the best possible outcome is achieved.”

Rosy added: “It is the University's hope that we are able make contact with the Thornhill family so that they can share in the celebration of Ernest Thornhill's wonderful legacy.”

The History of the Thornhill Collection

About Ernest Thornhill

Little is known about Ernest Thornhill, other than that he was a pharmacist, living in Clapham, London, who was an avid and knowledgeable (if not extravagant) collector of Oriental ceramics. He donated a total of six pieces to the British Museum in 1926 and 1933. It seems likely, therefore, that he chose to bequeath his collection to the institution because of its location in the Potteries and its importance as a provider of ceramics education.

About the Collection

The Collection of 270 pieces of oriental ceramics is important, containing Chinese wares along with a small number of Korean and Japanese pieces. The earliest pieces in the Collection belong to the Shang (1700 –1028 BC) and Zhou (1027–221 BC) dynasties. Ceramic experts, Steven Moore and Anna Westin, have advised that the Collection is a rare and rich resource for students, academic researchers and professional practitioners.

Scan of Thornhill's will (partially transcribed)

Timeline

1944

Ernest Thornhill bequeathed his personal collection of oriental ceramics to the then North Staffordshire Technical College, one of a number of institutions that merged over time to become Staffordshire University in 1992.

1984

Having been rediscovered by Professor Flavia Swann, Head of Art and Design History at North Staffordshire Polytechnic, the collection was fully catalogued thanks to funding from the Spode Trust. A scholarly paper, describing the Collection was published in the Transactions of the Oriental Ceramics Society 1983–1984, Vol.48.

1988

An exhibition was staged at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent.

2013

The University arranged for a valuation of the Collection by Sotheby’s. As its value has increased significantly in recent years the Collection is currently professionally stored and insured offsite.

2016

Following approval by the University’s Board of Governors, the high value Stem Cup will be sold off so that a permanent home can be created on the Stoke-on-Trent campus to house the remainder of the Thornhill Collection, thereby fulfilling the wishes of Ernest Thornhill.

2017

There will be a public unveiling of the Thornhill Collection in its permanent new home on Staffordshire University’s new city campus.