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History and Design of Teapots

A Historical Overview

According to Chou Kao-ch'i, author of Yang-Hsien ming hu hsi, an account of Ihing 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 a 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.

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

n 1710 a major commercial porcelain breakthrough occurred in Europe. After many trial-and-error efforts, imperial craftsmen found the clay near Meissen, Germany, coupled with new technology, produced a porcelain equal to the finest such items available from distant China. Nearby Dresden quickly became the center for fine European china. 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.

Silver Teapots

It is at this time (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.

Adapted from History and Design of Teapots of A World of Tea.

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