the sides finely painted in dark blue tones with two five-clawed dragons chasing the eternal flaming pearl amongst clouds, above a sea with crashing waves tipped in white, with rocks around the base, the interior painted with the six-character reign mark within double lines and circled by double rings repeated on the inside and outside rim, and on the foot
8.7cm high, 9.8cm diam
Estimate HK$ 22,000,000-44,000,000

From the Ernest Thornhill Collection; bequeathed to Staffordshire University, 1944-present.

The Thornhill Stem Cup is an excellent example of its type, which is virtually unseen outside museum collections. The motif of flying dragons was popular in the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), but was revived in the Xuande (1425-1435) as can be seen in this case. The fearsome five-clawed dragon flies amongst flames, chasing the eternally flaming pearl, above a sea with crashing waves tipped in white, with rocks seen around the base. The Stem Cup is crowned by the elegantly painted six-character reign mark within the cup, and circled by double rings, repeated on the inside and outside rim, and on the foot. This is a truly remarkable and rare piece, of a type not seen at auction for many years.

The reign of the Emperor Xuande commenced when the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) had been in power for 60 years, and China found herself thriving under new leaders. They had a capable and just government, there were no recent wars or natural disasters, and artistic inspiration was allowed to flourish at the kilns at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province. Xuande was a much respected leader, well read and versed in the classics, and a talented artist in his own right. He was fascinated by porcelain and was a keen collector. The word Ming translates as brilliant, and this applies to the treasures produced during the reigns of the triumvirate of Emperors; Yongle, Xuande and Chenghua. Scholars agree that the reign of the Xuande Emperor represents the apogee of blue and white ceramic production during the Ming dynasty. The clay was purified several times to produce the whitest and finest porcelain.

The wares' unique qualities include the glaze, which is thick and lustrous, with a buttery softness to it that responds to touch, and a luminosity unsurpassed in later wares. This glaze is untainted by age, and consequently the pieces still give us the same pleasure today as when the Emperor Xuande held them in his hands. Very few examples exist outside museum collections. Today, The National Palace Museum, acknowledged to hold the finest collection in the world, has a collection of over 2,000 various Xuande pieces.

The Thornhill Stem Cup is illustrated in Transactions of the Oriental Ceramics Society 1983–1984, Vol. 48.

The History of the Thornhill Collection

Ernest Thornhill lived in Clapham, London and was a British pharmacist registered with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society from 1890 to 1936. Thornhill is acknowledged as an ardent and knowledgeable collector of Asian ceramics, collecting from a number of sources including the renowned firm of Bluett & Sons. Few details are known about his personal life, but he nevertheless has made his mark with the philanthropic legacy he left behind him.

In 1926 and in 1933 Thornhill donated six pieces of his collection to the British Museum, however it was not until later, during the London Blitz in World War II, that he sent the remaining 276 pieces to the then North Staffordshire Technical College for safekeeping. As a mark of appreciation to the college for their generosity he later bequeathed the entire collection to them for its future study and appreciation.

Over time the college merged with a number of institutions to become Staffordshire University and the collection has remained at the University ever since. In the 1970s, Professor Flavia Swann, Head of Art and Design History at North Staffordshire Polytechnic, ensured that the collection was fully catalogued, thanks to funding from the Spode Trust. In addition a scholarly paper describing the Collection was published in the Transactions of the Oriental Ceramics Society 1983-1984, Vol.48. In keeping with the wishes of Mr Thornhill, all the works were displayed at the University until the early 1990s.

Sold for HK$41,560,000 (buyer's premium included)