Joseph Palin Thorley was born on 4 June 1892 in Staffordshire, the heart of England's ceramic-producing area. His ancestors on both sides worked in the ceramic business. His father and grandfather painted ceramics for a living. Indeed, his grandfather started what is now the Hanley School of Art. It is not surprising, then, that Palin Thorley enrolled in art school at the age of nine. Five years later, in 1906, he joined Wedgwood as an apprentice at the age of fourteen. Leaving Wedgwood in 1919, Thorley became art director and manager of decoration at several potteries in the area. He later recalled that "Mr. Simpson of Soho Pottery Company told me that I was the youngest man in the pottery industry to have a position of such responsibility."
In 1927 Thorley and his wife Edith immigrated to the United States. They moved to East Liverpool, Ohio, America's counterpart of England's Staffordshire. Thorley worked for many of the important potteries, but is best known for his projects at the Hall China Company and Taylor Smith, & Taylor. Thorley quickly earned acclaim. He received an honorary doctorate from West Virginia University. In 1929, a magazine writer described him as the "internationally known ceramist and Director of the University of Pittsburgh ceramics department." Thorley apparently held the position as director of the ceramics department for only a few years. He enjoyed the "professor" title and encouraged its use. Thorley's ties to Williamsburg began in 1937 when the city's restoration was underway. Shown some shards of a silver luster jug excavated in the Historic Area, Thorley confidently observed, "Oh, I can make that." Moving to Williamsburg himself, he restored an old museum on Jamestown Road making it his studio and home, and called it "White Hall." Here he supplied the Craft House museum shop with reproductions of eighteenth-century antiques from Colonial Williamsburg's collection. In his later years, he experimented and produced many intriguing glazes such as lusterware and Crystalline. He died on 10 February 1987. Thorley possessed great knowledge and extraordinary talent. Recognized as a leader in the American and European ceramic industry, he also was a man many remember as one of the wonderful characters of the "Burg" in the 1970s and 1980s.
Material in the Special Collections Research Center
- J. Palin Thorley in SCRC Database