Elizabeth J. Bailey
Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts
July 1, 1999
“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” Henry James (1843-1916) Portrait of a Lady.
Although tea was originally Chinese, the teapot that we are familiar with today is basically a European invention. The first European teapots were of a heavy cast ceramic with short, straight, replaceable spouts. Though functional, these early teapots were viewed as failures because of the poor quality of the clay and workmanship. Despite inventing the pot, Europe simply lacked the porcelain technology to produce a quality teapot.
The ships that brought tea from China also occasionally brought tea drinking equipment. Strange pots with spouts, and cups and saucers of thin delicate porcelain made tea drinking attractive and exotic. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the East India Company recognized the growing demand for such items as teapots and began importing them in ever greater numbers. The company commissioned porcelain directly from Chinese artists and craftsmen, using patterns sent from England and geared to European tastes. Designs fell into four main areas: mock-ups of Oriental designs (such as “Blue Willow” and “Tree of Life”), designs adapted from European prints, designs featuring British coat-of-arms, and innovative teapots (such as those with the now standard spout drain on the inside of the pot). The pots, which were waterproof, were stacked low in the ships while delicate tea leaves were stored up high.
Though the Chinese had been producing porcelain a thousand years to the British populace the Chinese goods looked strange and mysterious. Their very delicateness put them in a class by themselves compared to the rough British pots, cups, and saucers. The British soon elevated the Chinese porcelain items to that of a status symbol. Tea-drinking with family and friends provided an opportunity for people to show off their wealth and taste with the expensive imported porcelain. Chinese porcelain grew so popular that all porcelain became, and is still known as, china.
British potters immediately started trying to duplicate the fine porcelain wares of the Chinese. In 1710, a major breakthrough occurred. After countless trial and error efforts, craftsmen found the clay in Germany, together with new technology, could produce a porcelain equal to that of the Chinese. Dresden quickly became the center for fine European china. By the mid 1700s the techniques were being copied in both England and France. As the middle class in Europe grew, they sought to copy the life style of the upper classes. This included afternoon tea. As a result, consumers demanded that large amounts of teapots be available. Artists responded and created teapots of all shapes, sizes, and colors.
Because tea was expensive the first pots were relatively small and tea seen as a luxury. However, the leaves soon grew increasingly cheaper meaning that families could now afford to drink more of the liquid, teapot sizes increased as a result. Because the teapot was often at the center of social engagements, it seemed natural to print messages of all kinds upon its sides. Some pots wished drinkers “happiness”, “love”, and “well wishes”, others took a more political stand proclaiming “liberty” and “loyalty.” Teapot decoration closely followed the changing styles of interior design. Every major trend in design was represented in teapots including: the Renaissance Revival, Gothic Revival, Arts and Crafts, Aesthetic Movement, and Art Nouveau.
Teapot shapes also changed with the times. After 1790 a new shape of teapot was introduced every few years. The “box” shape, a lozenge form with straight sides, was quickly replaced with an oval pot with curved sides. Other shapes include the “Old Oval, ” with straight sides, and the “New Oval,” with curved sides. The “London” shape is oblong in form and has a rounded projecting shoulder. The Romantic Movement prompted potters to create a teapot with exaggerated curves and delicate floral decorations. Later, teapots were put on feet or pedestals to lend an ever more elegant air to the table. By the late nineteenth century novelty teapots were all the rage. Among other things pots were made in the shape of fish, buildings, human heads, animals.
Today the novelty trend continues along with a resurgence of the classic patterns from the 1700s and 1800s. Almost every china company in existence offers at least one teapot in its line. Although they vary greatly in form, the many shapes and styles of teapots available today all celebrate the lowly container so central to the many rituals which surround tea.