By Stuart Miller-Osborne
This article first appeared in the February 2013 edition of the Hungerford Arcade Newsletter and is reproduced here with Hungerford Arcade’s permission.
Of all the objects we have in our houses probably one of the oddest looking is the humble teapot. Yet it is the most functional. We have all grown up with teapots and many of us use them on a daily basis. They are an accepted part of even the most modern kitchen. There is a feeling of comfort when a teapot is placed in front of us with the other tea accessories. We are ready for yet another cup of tea.
Taking tea is considered the most British of pastimes. It is a tradition to be offered tea when visiting. But as with many things in this country the habit did not originate on these islands but many thousands of miles away in China .
One cannot pin an exact date on when tea was first discovered. A Chinese legend that dates back to some 2700 years before Christ notes that Shennong, the emperor of China at the time, found some leaves which had been blown from a tree and mixed them with his water and the taste was to his liking.
It is likely that this legend derived from the number of diseases that would have existed at the time. Learned men would have been on the lookout for herbs and other plants that might help to fight these illnesses, whichever way tea was born.
The Chinese philosopher Laozi famously described tea as “the froth of liquid jade” – a lovely description although I am pretty sure that he never tasted British Rail tea which is a good thing.
Although originating in China, tea had spread to Japan by the sixth century where it was primarily enjoyed by priests and most probably by travellers between the two countries. Here in the west we were totally ignorant of the drink and that was the way it stayed until the early part of the seventeenth century when the development of sea routes to China, by the Portuguese, helped tea to find its way into Europe, but not to the United Kingdom. It took a royal marriage to bring it to these shores.
Charles II has always been my favourite King. After the civil war the country needed healing and Charles in his way dressed many wounds. It was true that he also had many faults but his reign helped to get the country back on its feet and it was because of his marriage to Catherine of Braganza that the pastime of drinking tea at court was introduced. Catherine was a Portuguese princess and tea had been very fashionable in her country for many years. Tea had found its way to Britain and it was never to leave. Samuel Pepys recorded of having tasted tea for the first time in 1660. “ I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drank before”.
The rest is history. The British East India Company became involved and soon tea was no longer the restorative taken only by the aristocracy. Within a century tea was our national drink. Part of the reason was that it was heavily promoted by the East India Company as its ships tended to return to these shores not fully laden. To import tea solved the problem.
Even though most of us are vaguely aware of the general history of tea, we have adopted the drink as our own and with that teapots. They can come in all shapes and sizes and in all the colours of the universe but they are fundamentally the same, the handle, the spout, the container and the lid. If we were truthful we all probably own more than one teapot. Most households have the normal workhorse teapot and the one for best when the your favourite aunt comes for tea. You might own one of those miniature teapots which are ideal for those rushed cuppas or when you want to settle down quietly in the evening. You might have a very large teapots which is brought into use during family gatherings and if pushed would probably sustain a small Berkshire village. The list is endless.
But not all teapots are used, some are collected. I am not a collector of teapots (outside of cube teapots) but have amassed a small number of non cube ones over the years. For some reason (probably because of its shape) teapots attract. I have picked up teapots because of their colour, design and for many other reasons. It appears quite a common attraction.
But when did the teapot come in? Did Catherine pour Charles a nice cuppa out of their very own Brown Betty as they settled down to read the naughty Earl of Rochester’s latest poems? Sadly not. The history of the teapot, like everything else, was a little more complex.
My research indicates that it is unlikely that the Chinese would have used teapots. The drink would have been brewed in pans or straight into drinking vessels. There is evidence that something that resembled a wine ewer might have been used. It appears that the definition of what was a teapot was confirmed in and around 1694 when our friends at the British East India Company directed that teapots should have “a grate before the spout” to hold back the tea leaves.
Charles sadly died in 1685 but during his marriage to Catherine they would have taken tea most probably from a Chinese porcelain teapot of some description or maybe an English silver teapot. Ceramic teapots did not make an appearance until the 1690s with a varying degree of acceptance.
With the usual muddle of taxes and imports it was Josiah Wedgwood in the 1760s who introduced improvements to the teapot. They were nicer to look at and did not crack as earlier teapots had a habit of doing. These teapots appealed to the middle classes .In 1784 the government saw sense on the subject of taxes on tea and dramatically lowered them and in 1791 the East India Company ceased their imports of Chinese porcelain. Life was getting better for the humble teapot. About ten years later the invention of bone china allowed more flexibility and enabled the makers to respond the consumer demand and changes in fashion. The age of the teapot had firmly arrived and it has been part of our national culture ever since.
One of my favourites is the Brown Betty which was made originally from the red clay discovered in the Stoke area about ten years after Charles died and certainly during Catherine’s lifetime. One of the special properties was that this clay retained the heat well and it soon started being used for teapots ( although the early ones looked more like coffee pots). By the time Victoria was on the throne they began to look more like the ones we accept today. The Rockingham glaze used gave the teapots their famous streaky finish. With what appears to be the rings of Saturn on the top third of the teapot Brown Bettys are very familiar. We can all remember our grandparents or even parents having one. They were part of the fabric of the British home.
Whilst writing and researching this article I was quite surprised at the sheer variety of teapots that surround us these days. They are of all shapes and sizes. There are novelty teapots and there are retro teapots. There are minimalist teapots, there are teapots that I believe do not know they are teapots.
When another Katherine married the grandson of the Queen then commemorative teapots were made. I have a coronation teapot from 1953 and the modern ones did not differ much from my one. They were teapots of celebration.
During the Art Deco era many exquisite teapots were designed. These were the teapots of sheer beauty, the peacocks of the race. The list is endless and I have only highlighted a few examples.
Over the years I have seen (although not collected) a number of very odd teapots and two from the from the late 1970s are worth a mention. The first one was a Gothic teapot that I saw in Herne Bay in Kent in a junk shop. It was an odd creature of a square design but was decorated as if it was a gothic church with the lid resembling that of gothic tower with crenellated tops and all. The handle was even more odd and was designed to look like a flying buttress as was the spout. The teapot was of a faded grey and over the years I have wondered if it was somebody’s idea of a joke as the word Gothic is a derogatory term, first used in the seventeenth century which means when broken down, of the uncultured Goths (Goth-ic). I am not an expert but the teapot looked Victorian. It was maybe as I have noted somebody’s pun at the Gothic Revival. I have never found out and I regret not buying it at the time.
The other one was a plain white teapot with the excellent paintings of Australian Aboriginals as well as a representation of parts of the Liverpool Plains area in New South Wales. The whole teapot was also covered with examples of the art of these indigenous peoples For many years I wondered why this had been had been added.. Was this the home of the talented artist who had decorated the teapot and maybe others ? I will never know but it was a very odd teapot through no fault of its own.
There have been various changes to the teapot over the last three hundred or so years. It has fought off the dreaded challenge of the tea bag. Indeed many people put teabags into their teapots to brew. Two innovations have joined together to improve our lot. Over the last few years we have even gone back to loose tea, taking time to brew exotic teas from all around the world. We have Earl Grey, Lady Grey, Lapsang souchong, English Breakfast tea, Jasmine tea the list is endless. Quite why we take some of these teas with milk is quite beyond me, but this is typically British.
Should you want to collect teapots then there is a lot of variety both old and new. It can be a cheap or expensive hobby. If you look hard enough then there are bargains to be found. Indeed I purchased a beautiful Poole teapot for my wife recently for the price of a round. Quite frequently I see lovely Victorian teapots for quite reasonable prices. Even Deco teapots are well within the pockets of us all.
As I have noted I collect Cube teapots and odd ones that interest me (regrettably not the Gothic one) but we all will have our favourites. I know of people who would not dream of going into an antique shop or arcade to buy a teapot and satisfy themselves in the purchase of contemporary teapots. Other people love the history of the teapots they find in shops or arcades. Each to their own. It is a fascinating hobby and has the added bonus of a well deserved cup of tea should you be brave enough to use the teapot you have just added to your collection.