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Museum Director Marcelle Giving a Press Preview

J. Palin Thorley: Modern and Traditional Design in Twentieth-Century Ceramics

Posted on May 23rd, 2008

Milwaukee, WI, April 18, 2008—
Nostalgic and contemporary styles combine as the expertise of an English pottery designer meets the changing tastes of baby-booming postwar America in J. Palin Thorley: Modern and Traditional Design in Twentieth-Century Ceramics. This lively, intimate exhibition captures the life’s work of a Colonial Williamsburg tastemaker and explores a century of resonant trends in American tableware.

On view in the redesigned Decorative Arts Gallery of the Milwaukee Art Museum June 5–August 17, 2008, J. Palin Thorley presents a comprehensive look back on the twentieth-century dining room table in America. Almost everything featured comes from a single collection owned by John C. Austin, curator emeritus of ceramics and glass at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and a close personal friend of Palin Thorley’s. Over 130 examples of Thorley’s work in popular Colonial Revival and Modern styles—accompanied by advertisements, photographs, working drawings, molds and tools, experimental pieces, and private effects—are on display. 

The objects on view offer both a personal story and a big-picture narrative thanks to the prolific continuum of the artist’s seven-decades-long career, and his deep roots in eighteenth-century pottery making. Thorley, a third-generation British potter, trained as a decorative painter and designer in Staffordshire-the historical seat of British pottery-at England’s oldest and most prestigious potteries. Beginning in the late 1920s, he brought his talents to East Liverpool, Ohio, where he worked in various capacities for some of America’s largest pottery companies, including American Chinaware and Hall China. In 1949, he moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, to supply the newly established museum shop there with reproductions of eighteenth-century teapots and vases.

Colonial Williamsburg was the undisputed arbiter of taste for revival-minded decorators in the mid-century. Through that outlet, Thorley’s design aesthetic and potting skill widely influenced popular conceptions of the Colonial Revival style. Surprisingly, his singular authority gave birth to styles and forms on American tables that were vastly and fundamentally different from one another. He was a master of variety who created avant-garde moderne serving sets as well as traditional tablewares, such as the five-finger posy holder and revived lusterware patterns. Seemingly incompatible elements of Modernism and historicism overlap in Thorley’s work, inviting visitors to reconsider the widely held separation of Colonial Revival style from more modern alternatives. 

J. Palin Thorley: Modern and Traditional Design in Twentieth-Century Ceramics is guest curated by John C. Austin, curator emeritus of ceramics and glass at Colonial Williamsburg, with assistance from Robert Hunter, editor of Ceramics in America. Organized at the Milwaukee Art Museum by Sarah Fayen, curator at the Chipstone Foundation. ­

Opening Celebration
Thursday, June 5
5:30-8 p.m.
Lecture, 6:15 p.m.
Free with general admission
Get to know the Chipstone Foundation at a reception in the Museum’s Baumgartner Galleria. John C. Austin, Colonial Williamsburg’s curator emeritus of ceramics and glass and a close friend of Palin Thorley’s, delivers a lecture in Lubar Auditorium at 6:15 p.m.

Gallery Talk
Tuesday, June 24
1:30 p.m.
Free with general admission
Join curator Sarah Fayen of the Chipstone Foundation for an informative tour of the exhibition.

About the Museum
The Milwaukee Art Museum’s far-reaching holdings include more than 20,000 works spanning antiquity to the present day. With a history dating back to 1888, the Museum has a Collection particularly strong in 19th- and 20th-century American and European art, contemporary art, American decorative arts, and folk and self-taught art. The Museum is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except for Thursdays when the Museum stays open until 8 p.m. (supported by Greater Milwaukee Foundation). General admission tickets are $8 adults, $6 seniors, $4 students. Members and children 12 and under are admitted free.

About the Chipstone Foundation
A non-profit organization located in Fox Point, Wisconsin, Chipstone was founded by Milwaukee collectors Stanley and Polly Mariner Stone in 1965 to collect early American decorative arts and promote scholarship in the field. Today, the Foundation’s holdings of early American furniture, historical prints, and British pottery are displayed and interpreted alongside the Museum’s Collection. In addition to its collaboration with the Museum, Chipstone publishes two annual scholarly journals, American Furniture and Ceramics in America.