Just a few metres off The Circus in central Bath, is one of the most unique art collections in England – The Museum of East Asian Art. Situated in a restored Georgian house, the Museum attracts the interest of students, scholars and tourists, and also has a loyal local following.
This unique museum houses a fine collection of ceramics, jades, bronzes and much more from China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. The Museum of East Asian Art is the only museum in the UK dedicated solely to arts and cultures of East and Southeast Asia.
Since opening to the public in April 1993, the Museum has gone from strength to strength, and has become one of the most extensive collections of East Asian art outside London. With a collection of almost 2,000 objects, ranging in date from c.5000 BC to the present day, the Museum offers its visitors a wonderful insight into the art and cultures of China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. With one of the most comprehensive jade collections in the UK and some of the finest bamboo carvings in Europe, the collection uncovers the finest achievements in East Asian craftsmanship.
The Museum’s excellent and wide ranging collection is interpreted in a lively and innovative manner. Particular attention is given to the Museum’s educational role, with special exhibitions, an active events programme and new publications designed to encourage a greater understanding of East Asian art and cultures.
To offer facilities for the appreciation and study of East and Southeast Asian art and cultures. To this end the Museum collects, preserves, exhibits and makes available to the public, artefacts from East and Southeast Asia, and information relating to those areas. The Museum works to encourage education, creativity, dialogue and research in relation to such cultures, and strives to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible.
The Museum was founded in 1990 by Brian McElney OBE. Brian spent his entire working life practicing law in Hong Kong and it was during this time that he was drawn to the beauty of Chinese art. In 1955 he bought his first piece, a 17th century gilt brass seated Sakyamuni Buddha, with Sanskrit and Tibetan inscriptions, after which Brian’s collection grew to include jades, ceramics, scholar’s studio objects and bronzes.
After his retirement from law in 1983, Brian returned to England and procured the funds for the restoration and refurbishment of the Georgian building that houses the Museum. Mr McElney generously donated his private collection to form the Museum, which he had created as a UK educational charity.
Bath is one of the best preserved 18th century cities in the world. It is one of only a few cities in the world designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. Attractions include the spectacular Royal Crescent and The Circus as well as the Roman Baths. The City attracts both national and international tourists, making it the second most visited city in Britian. Bath is ideally situated geographically on the River Avon, and being surrounded by hills and water, it conforms to rules of feng shui for a providential site; an appropriate location for the future prosperity of a collection reflecting the art and cultures of East Asia.
Bath and the West Country also have historical links to China. The trade in Chinese tea and porcelain was one of the most valued aspects of commerce in 18th century England and Bath was the second most popular resort after London for these activities. By the mid-18th century tea drinking had become an important part in the city’s social life. An important part of the Museum’s collection is the Armorial Porcelain in the Ceramics Gallery, with the pieces illustrating the important link between China and 18th century Bath and surrounding region.
Brian S. McElney, OBE.
The Museum of East Asian Art was founded by lawyer and collector, Brian S. McElney OBE. Many of the objects in the Museum’s collection were collected over many years by Brian, who then donated these objects to the Museum when it was set up as an Education Charity. Since then, the Museum’s collections have been added to by donations and new acquisitions.
Brian was educated in the UK, attending school at Marlborough College where he studied classics and ancient history. He did not go to university but was articled to a solicitors’ practice in the City of London, where he qualified in 1956. He then joined the legal firm of Johnston Stokes & Master in Hong Kong, eventually rising to the position of Senior Partner in 1971. During 1973-74 he served as President of the Hong Kong Law Society. He remained as Senior Partner in his practice until 1983, continuing as a consultant until his retirement in 1992.
Brian’s career was rewarding on many levels. By mid-career he was a prominent member of Hong Kong society, noted for his fine and extensive collection of East Asian art treasures, principally Chinese. He started collecting in 1958, despite his modest means at that time. His collecting dominated his non-work interests, and he devoted many hours to achieving a scholarly understanding both of Chinese art, and of the history of one of the world’s finest and most profound artistic cultures. This knowledge enabled him to buy with discrimination.
After retiring in 1992, Brian was faced with the dilemma of what to do with his by now extensive collection of East Asian art. He explored the possibilities of loaning or donating his collection to an existing museum where he could continue his involvement with Chinese art, and pass on his knowledge and enthusiasm for it to the next generation. However his approaches were in vain. Then in late 1989, only a week or so after the last unsuccessful approach, some funds in his gift became available for donation to charity, specifically including museums. Brian decided to found the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath as an educational charity to which he would donate his collection.
A fine Georgian house was purchased at 12 Bennett Street, located close to The Circus, one of Bath ‘s most prominent architectural treasures, and not far from that other architectural masterpiece, the Royal Crescent. The house was converted in 1991 – 92 and fitted out as a Museum, with meticulous attention paid to the planning and finishing of the building. Since the founding of the Museum, Brian worked there on a daily basis as the Honorary Keeper until 2010, with a series of excellent curators, a small dedicated team of managers, and an effective and focussed group of more senior Trustees.
Since its foundation the Museum has flourished and is now recognised as one of the three major UK Museums in its field.Print this page