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J. Palin Thorley Papers

Identifier: MS 00076

  • Staff Only
  • No requestable containers

Scope and Contents

The papers of J. Palin Thorley contain personal and business papers, legal and financial papers, photographs, studio notes, drawings and sketches, ceramics, and artifacts. Joseph Palin Thorley was an internationally known potter who supplied the Craft House museum shop with reproductions of eighteenth-century antiques from Colonial Williamsburg’s collection. The collection largely relates to Thorley's pottery work and business, documenting his creative and scholarly process. For an enhanced description of each thematic series, see the detailed series listing.


  • Creation: 1910-1987
  • Creation: Majority of material found in 1930-1986

Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access:

Collection is open to all researchers. Manuscript collections and archival records may contain materials with sensitive or confidential information that is protected under federal or state right to privacy laws and regulations, such as the Virginia Public Records Act (Code of Virginia. § 42.1-76-91); and the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (Code of Virginia § 2.2-3705.5). Confidential material may include, but is not limited to, educational, medical, and personnel records. If sensitive material is found in this collection, please contact a staff member immediately. The disclosure of personally identifiable information pertaining to a living individual may have legal consequences for which the College of William and Mary assumes no responsibility.

Conditions Governing Use:

Before reproducing or quoting from any materials, in whole or in part, permission must be obtained from the Special Collections Research Center, and the holder of the copyright, if not Swem Library.

Biographical Information:

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.

Further information about this individual or organization may be available in the Special Collections Research Center Wiki:


28.90 Linear Feet

Arrangement of Materials:

The collection is organized into nine thematic series: Business Correspondence; Personal Correspondence and Papers; Legal Documents; Financial Documents; Studio Notes; Photographs; Publications and Reference Materials; Studio Art; and Artifacts. The internal arrangement of each series varies according to context, either alphabetically, chronologically, thematically, or by medium.

Physical Characteristics or Technical Requirements:

The fragile nature of some ceramics may limit handling.

Acquisition Information:

Mss. Acc. 1996-62 was a gift received on 12/23/1996. Mss. Acc. 1997-24 was a gift received on 5/9/1997: 16 pieces of Palin Thorley pottery including jugs, vases, plates, glazes, both his pre-williamsburg and Williamsburg sojourns.  On loan until made a gift in 1998 are thirteen pieces. Mss. Acc. 2006-70 was a gift received on 11/21/2006: Pottery pieces include a green brick with leaves, a blue laurel English Spring Bouquet dinner plate, a Hall china berry bowl, an experimental china (unfired) dinner plate, a glazed ointment pot, 3 molds of working body and feet, a fluted and footed bowl that matches molds, a silver luster sugar bowl and creamer, a scarab coffee cup and saucer, and small plate with large pink flowers, and an blue/garland English Abbey dinner plate.

Separated Materials:

All artifacts are housed and described in the Manuscripts Artifact Collection. The original finding aid record created in 2008 mentioned the existence of taped interviews and conversations with Thorley, but the tapes could not be located at time of full processing in 2015.

Processing Information:

The finding aid was added to Archon on 5/16/2008 by Amy C. Schindler, University Archivist. The collection was initially processed by Jennie Davy, SCRC Staff, in 2008. The biography of J. Palin Thorley was written by Chandi Singer, Burger Archives Specialist. Additional processing of the collection by Jerry Limber, SCRC Staff, and Chandi Singer in 2009-2010 and Priscilla Wood, SCRC Staff, and Justin Ferrell, SCRC Staff,  in May-July 2010. The box list inventory was added by Justin Ferrell in July 2010. The collection was fully processed in 2015 by Eve Bourbeau-Allard, graduate assistant, and Kelly Manno, undergraduate student assistant.

Guide to the J. Palin Thorley Papers
Special Collections Staff.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections Research Center Repository