Teapots W. Kandinsky, Black Frame, 1922

History of Tea : Teapots

Stem Cup, Jiajing period, 1522/1566
porcelain with enamels on the biscuit

At the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in China, leaf infusion as we know it now became popular. The earliest examples of teapots come from this period, made from the zisha, or "purple" clay, of the YiXing region of China. Pottery in the YiXing tradition has been strong since the Sung Dynasty (960-1279); wares are valued for their fine texture, thin walls, and naturally beautiful coloration ranging from light buff to deep maroon tones. The transition from drinking bowls to teapots was a smooth one. YiXing teapots were, and still are, used to brew tea as well as act as the drinking vessel -- one sips directly from the spout of a single-serving pot. YiXing teapots gradually season, the unglazed clay absorbing the flavor of brewed tea, making them a favorite choice for tea lovers. The dissemination of YiXing teapots greatly influenced not only the forms of teapots found throughout the world, but also prompted the invention of hard-paste porcelain in the western world.
According to Chou Kao-ch'i, author of Yang-Hsien ming hu hsi, an account of * Yixing(pronounced yeeshing) teapots, early in the sixteenth century, the potters at Ihing, a few miles up to Yangtze from Shanghai, became famous for teapots known to Europeans by the Portuguese name boccarro (large mouth). These were small, individual pots. which came to Europe with teas and served as models for the first European teapots.

Other scholars have discounted this history and say that the Chinese, though they provided Europe with her first tea, did not historically use teapots. Instead they brewed tea directly in the cup, letting the leaves sink to the bottom before drinking. Such teacups are still used in many Chinese restaurants today, however the modern productions are clumsy and rough as compared with those turned out during the latter half of the Ming dynasty.

Some believe the design source for teapots may have come from one of two influences reaching Europe in the mid-1600's. The first was the Islamic coffee pots, which were first seen in the popular coffee houses of Europe and England during this period. (Indeed, for some years there was no design difference between coffee pots and teapots.) The second design source might have been the Chinese wine vessels then being imported as a curiosity piece. Unsure what its purpose was, it may have been assumed it was used with the imported tea in which it was packed (literally, to prevent breakage during the long trip from China.) The Earl Cadogan, whose estates were located in Staffordshire, the future center of English porcelain production, was the first Englishman recorded to have owned such a Chinese "wine pourer". It was globular in shape, foreshadowing the future design of the majority of teapots produced in Europe.

Teapots as European invention

It can then be said, that though tea was originally Chinese, the teapot design of today is basically European. The first teapots created in Europe were of a heavy cast with short, straight, replaceable spouts unlike the first teapot made by the Chinese which was similar to the wine pourer but very unsuitable for the purpose. (The latter was important as the pottery was fragile and spouts often broke.) Other variations that occurred during this early period were octagonal and melon shaped teapots as well as "fantasy" teapots designed as plants or animals. Such teapots favored domestic forms such as squirrels and rabbits or newer "exotic" forms such as camels, monkeys, and bunches of bamboo. These early teapots were, however, viewed as failures due to the poor quality of clay and workmanship. Europe, though she had "designed" the teapot, lacked the porcelain technology to produce a quality teapot. Around 1700 porcelain is discovered by a German alchemist B?ttger at Meissen in Germany in 1708. This discovery was critical to the spread of tea drinking in Europe because until this time European pottery could not withstand the heat of boiling water.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the East India Company, recognized the growing demand for such items as teapots and began importation in larger numbers. The increased cargo served an additional function-that of ballast in the trade ships. The company commissioned china directly from Chinese artists and craftsmen, using patterns sent from England and geared to European tastes, stereotypes, and market values. Designs fell into four main areas: mock-ups of Oriental designs (such as "Blue Willow" and "The Tree of Life"), designs adapted from European prints (such as the famous Georgian "house" teapots), armorials (bearing the coat of arms for major European families), and the innovative teapots (such as those with the now standard spout drain on the interior of the teapot). Company directors were especially concerned that teapots not drip and so stain the valuable linen that they also marketed.

Porcelain Teapots

Porcelain is 'a hard vitrified translucent ceramic' (The Concise Oxford Dictionary), and china is 'a kind of fine white or translucent ceramic ware' (The Concise Oxford Dictionary), i.e. they have separate definitions. But as Fowler (1926) remarked, 'Porcelain is china, and china is porcelain; there is no recondite difference between the two things, which indeed are not two, but one.' Nevertheless there are differences of use; e.g. someone making preparations for an important tea party might well say I must get out my best china (not my best porcelain). But ornaments and vases, for example, may equally well be described as made of china or made of porcelain. The etymology of the word "porcelain" is traced to the term "porcella," the Italian name for cowrie shells. Porcelain had the same shiny veneer and whiteness as these natural objects. "Soft-paste" porcelain refers to works produced with glass-like materials before Bottger discovered the method for producing European "hard-paste" porcelain, a substance strong enough to withstand cutting with steel.

In Germany, Johann Bottger of Meissen worked as an alchemist for King Augustus of Poland. Augustus had a penchant for Chinese pottery and wanted gold to buy, among other things, fine teapots. Soon Bottger was instructed to throw all of his energy into discovering a European equivalent to the kaolin rich clay and petuntse rock of Chinese porcelain. The Chinese had been firing pieces of hard porcelain as early as 618 CE -- their idea of porcelain was defined not by color or translucence, but rather by the musical note achieved when a piece was struck.

But by the mid-1700's the technique was being copied in England and France. As Baroque and Rococo designs began to appear, they were adapted into porcelain production. Though teapots largely remained globular in shaped, some pear shaped ones were popular. Spouts were often shaped as dragons or other animals. Handles were elaborately embellished with scrolls and similar designs.

In Europe a soft-paste porcelain, made solely from clay and ground glass and fired at 1,200C, was produced in an effort to duplicate Chinese porcelain. This material was not a true porcelain, being much less hard and fine. Large-scale porcelain manufacture did not begin in the West until new deposits of kaolin were found, such as those in Cornwall, England. These were fired at a temperature of 1,450C. The first major Western development was the discovery of bone china by the British potter Josiah Spode in about 1800. Spode added calcined bone to hard paste mixes to produce a hybrid porcelain, still widely used in the UK. Porcelain is also a useful engineering ceramic, with properties similar to alumina, that is used in many electrical insulating applications.

Silver Teapots

Some sources say Queen Victoria was the first to have her tea served from a silver teapot. Tea tastes better brewed in a china pot, but she was the Queen and liked hers from a silver pot. It is at 1730's that the first silver service pots for tea only were designed. Simple globular shaped designs soon gave way to straight-sided silver teapots. These in turn were replaced by the oval shaped teapots of the 1770's. The American patriot Paul Revere was the most famed silversmith of the young nation. Indeed, his favorite portrait shows him holding one such teapot. By the 1780's footed teapots appeared, designed to protect tabletops from heat scarring. Although pewter teapots appeared throughout the Georgian (Colonial Period) for those unable to afford silver teapots, they were seldom produced in any number after the 1790's. Reflecting the "classic" designs favored by the new French Republic, teapots were, for a short, but beautiful period, shaped as a drum. Porcelain historians have often wondered if this "drum" shape subconsciously reflected the Napoleonic Wars to soon roll across Europe.

Kraak Style

Kraak was a new style of blue and white porcelain made at Jingdezhen in the late 16th to early 17th centuries. Kraak wares were traded by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the Spanish. They have been found not only in Europe but also in West Asia and along the Californian coast of America. The term kraak may derive from carrack, a type of Portuguese ship which first took such wares to Europe. Two Portuguese carracks sunk by rival Dutch traders in the 16th century yielded around one million pieces which were auctioned in Amsterdam, and thus started the trend for collecting kraak in the 17th century. Kraak also means 'easily breakable' in Dutch; a characteristic which can be seen in the thinly potted walls and a glaze that tends to flake off at the rims.
* Stash Tea : Teapots
* Yixing : Teapot Information
* Teapots, China & Other Tableware
* eBay : Tea Pots, Tea Sets
* Yixing from Museum Company
* A History of Teapots
* Royal Doulton
* Gotheborg.com
collectors of Antique Chinese and Japanese Porcelain

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Last updated : 07-Mar-05