The UNESCO designation of World Heritage sites is given to only a few selected cities. Bath in southwest England has the designation. Although it is called one of the best preserved 18th-century cities in the world, its origins go much further back in time.
It has the remarkable appeal of Roman Baths and the abbey, the River Avon and surrounding hills, and the more recent Royal Crescent and old streets with tea shops that specialize in Sally Lunn buns.
In a restored Georgian house near The Circus in Bath is The Museum of East Asian Art. It cares for a valuable collection of ceramics, jades, bronzes and other treasures from China, Japan, Korea and southeast Asia. The museum was founded in 1990 by Brian S. McElney OBE, a longtime discriminating collector.
In retirement, absorbed in the art pieces and their background stories, McElney devotes himself to the museum, which has the status of educational charity. As honorary keeper, he goes to the museum on a daily basis.
McElney was born in 1932 in Hong Kong. He said, “My father and my maternal grandmother were physicians. My brother and I were very young when our mother died. We were brought up between Hong Kong and the U.K. I was sent to Marlborough College where I studied classics and ancient history. Then I was articled to a solicitor’s practice in London, where I qualified in 1956.”
His career proceeded smoothly. McElney joined the legal firm of Johnston Stokes and Master in Hong Kong. By 1971, he had risen to the position of senior partner, holding this position for a dozen years, then serving as a consultant until his retirement. For a year he presided over the Hong Kong Law Society.
The years spent by McElney in reaching senior legal levels in Hong Kong coincided with reviving prosperity in the former British colony. Political changes in China in 1949 set up continuing movements of people out of China into Hong Kong. “Not only poor people arrived, but also many Chinese entrepreneurs,” McElney said.
“Many coming from Shanghai re-established their businesses in Hong Kong, and built rapid economic expansion there.” Against this revitalizing background McElney became a popular local citizen respected for his knowledge of East Asian art treasures.
In 1958, McElney bought his first piece of Chinese art “despite my modest means at that time,” he said. The piece was an ivory goat and kid. When he could take time away from his legal responsibilities, he traveled extensively. To study and to buy, he visited famous old sites and towns in China and further afield. His pursuits resulted in his acquiring the authority of a scholar in Chinese art and a historian in a profound artistic culture.
At the time of his retirement from Hong Kong, he had collected some 2,000 objects of East Asian art. In date they range from about 5,000 B.C. to the present time and include, as well as Chinese artifacts, examples of Tibetan art, Fujian export ceramics, bamboo carvings and decorative arts.
McElney needed somewhere not only to house his collection but also to make it visible to the public and to succeeding generations. The museum that he founded is now recognized as one of the three major U.K. museums in its field. HRH Prince Michael of Kent is the museum’s patron.
McElney says that Bath in its ideal location conforms to the Feng Shui rules for a providential site.
Last autumn, the museum presented an exhibition of Chinese export wares prior to the year 1700. “I spent two years researching and writing the catalog ‘Chinese Ceramics and the Maritime Trade pre-1700’ for the show,” McElney said. He wrote a text of nine essays on the history and diversity of ceramic wares produced in nonimperial kilns. The text also uncovers the markets, including Japan, that Chinese ceramics catered for. Professor Li Jian’an of the Fujian Museum wrote an additional essay for the catalog.
“Strangely, a survey of the maritime trade pre-1700 has never been attempted before, and the publication is an academically important one,” McElney said. It is printed in both English and Chinese, and has 115 color plates from the museum’s collection, supplemented by additional illustrations from the British Museum and The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.