A Brief History of Teapots

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The Ch'a Ching, the earliest book on the subject of tea, appeared in China in 780. Legend has it that tea was first drunk there more than three thousand years before, but it was under the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that the drink became fashionable and the wild tea plant, Camellia sinensis, was brought into cultivation.

The first significant imports of tea to Europe arrived in the early years of the 17th century. They came thanks to Portugal's development of sea-routes to China and the trading skills of the Dutch. Surprisingly, there is debate as to whether the Chinese used teapots at this time. If so, they would have represented quite a recent change to the traditional method of making tea, in which the drink was brewed in open pans or in the actual cup.

Assuming it existed, the Chinese teapot was indistinguishable from what is termed a wine-pot or wine-ewer. Vessels of this type were exported along with the tea itself and if not actually intended for tea-making, may have been interpreted as being so here in the West. A true distinction between wine-ewers and teapots was only established after 1694, when the British East India Company directed that teapots made for them in China must have "a grate… before the spout". In other words, they wanted a sort of pierced barrier where the tea enters the spout so as to hold back the tea-leaves.

Britain had been introduced to tea rather later than some other parts of Europe. The first mention of it as a commodity for sale comes in 1658, when it is advertised as being available at the Sultaness Head, a coffee house in Royal Exchange, London. The diarist, Samuel Pepys writes of trying it first in 1660; "I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before."

Two years later tea-drinking received a considerable boost in this country when Catherine of Braganza married Charles II. She was from Portugal, where tea had been fashionable for many years. Her liking for it slowly spread, accompanied by a changing perception of tea. From a largely medicinal practice, still good, in 1667, for Mrs Pepys' "cold and difluxions", tea-drinking was on the way to being a widespread social pastime.

Catherine would have been served tea from a Chinese porcelain or stoneware teapot, or perhaps later on from an English silver one. The earliest British ceramic teapots did not appear until the 1690s and then had to compete, with varying degrees of success, against Chinese imports for the next hundred years.

Several factors finally conspired to make British tea-ware the most beautiful in the world and to establish tea itself as the national drink. The earliest of them may have been Josiah Wedgwood's improved cream-coloured earthenware, which was introduced in the 1760s. This was more attractive to the middle-class consumer than earlier forms of earthenware and, unlike most British porcelain of the time, didn't "fly" (crack on contact with hot water).

Next, in 1784 the government's tax on tea, which had been intermittently rising since it was first imposed in 1698, fell dramatically. Consumption quadrupled in the following decade, gladdening the makers of British tea-ware, who must have been even more pleased in 1791 when the East India Company announced an end to their imports of Chinese porcelain.

Last, but not least important, in around 1800 came the invention of bone china. With its deceptive toughness, refinement and ease of manufacture bone china allowed makers to romp through the consumer boom of the 19th century, equally able to lead taste or to respond to fashions originating from elsewhere.

In the last three hundred years the size of the teapot has grown with the affordability of tea. Otherwise, the only real change in the basic form has been the disappearance of the internal strainer called into being by the East India Company in the 1690s. The general adoption of teabags has made it redundant. However, the variety of shapes and decoration manifested during the period is astonishing. 

The paradox of every human face being different and yet the same seems to apply equally well to teapots. The essential elements of pot, handle, spout and lid (granted that there is one teapot here designed not to have a lid) can be endlessly re-imagined to suit the times and the market. Add to that the social significance of tea in this country both in uniting disparate classes and as the accompaniment to personal grief and happiness, and the teapot starts to appear in a new light. It carries with it a richer history than any other ceramic object in our households and a more potent symbolism. 

…Time to put the kettle on?

We have over two hundred ceramic teapots from the late 17th century to the present day which can be viewed online. Children's and other miniature teapots are not shown here, but souvenir teapots are included if large enough for use, and so are tea infusers, which it could be argued are simply teapots turned inside out.

Amongst the teapots are ones which are purely practical and others that reflect strong stylistic trends. They therefore embody two themes, utility and contemporary taste. Sometimes there is a tension between them. For example, utility may be best served by a plain-ended spout that re-absorbs drips, whilst fashion might demand tea from the gaping beak of a bird. In the best designs the two are reconciled, but in others it's clear that practicality has succumbed to art, or vice versa. The collection is richer for not taking sides, representing the teapot in as inclusive a way as possible.

With limited display space, only about half the teapots shown here are exhibited at any one time. The website not only provides a view of items not currently on show, but also uniquely good visual access to all the teapots, with many additional images showing makers' marks, decorative details, back views and even interiors.

Very nearly all the teapots that are on display will be found at the Allen Gallery in Alton, Hampshire. There they are divided by material and manufacturer, and so are shown with other items of stoneware, porcelain, etc, and amongst other work by, maybe, Wedgwood or Doulton. In contrast, this website gives an opportunity to explore the teapot in isolation, and to appreciate the extraordinary variety given by designers over three centuries to the same basic form.