From the mid-seventeenth century onwards tea-drinking arrived in England and over the next century the English started making teapots and gradually formulated a version of porcelain that could be made into ‘china’ teapots. Originally porcelain production was a Chinese secret, but by the 1740s a form of porcelain was being produced in Britain. Chinese porcelain was very expensive and highly rated as noted by Nicholas Crisp in 1743.
The essential properties of China-ware, besides the Beauty of its Colours, are these: that it is smooth, and as easily cleaned as Glass, and at the same Time bears the hottest Liquors without danger of breaking.
Nicholas Crisp writing in the Public Advertiser in 1743
It was only natural that the innovative potters of England would want to be able to make teapots as good as the much praised China-ware. As a result of fierce, commercial competition to successfully copy these much admired Chinese imports, soft paste porcelain was developed. It was white and glossy and thinly potted to produce teapots similar in appearance to the Chinese imports. However, as soft paste porcelain is fired at relatively low temperatures some of the early teapots shattered when filled with hot water.
Some manufacturers recommended ‘Warming the Pot’. That is slowly warming a teapot to avoid it shattering. It didn’t take many years before soft porcelain was perfected and teapots became reliable receptacles for boiling water, however, ‘Warming the Pot’ persisted. I learnt the ritual from my mother without question, but I have thought, on more than one occasion, why am I doing this as boiling water poured over tea immediately makes the teapot more than warm! Well, now I know – and I won’t be warming the pot in the future! Unless somebody gives me a new plausible reason.
Tea and teapots came to Britain from China in the middle of the 17th century. The teapots were made either of hard red stoneware or white porcelain and were extremely expensive, but by the 1690s enterprising English potters were producing more affordable copies. In Staffordshire, David and John Elers made unglazed red stoneware from local red clay.
These ‘red’ teapots were imitations of the Chinese teapots from the province of Yixing.
Gradually tea drinking spread from the fashionable and rich to the fashionable and aspirational. Aspirational individuals were those who wanted to emulate the habits of the gentry, including their new and elaborate social ritual of tea-drinking. Demand for teawares increased, both imported from China and locally manufactured in England, giving the Staffordshire Potteries a huge boost as the area began to industrialize in the early eighteenth century. Enterprising potters developed their own range of decorative effects as they attempted to copy Chinese porcelain.
This salt-glazed stoneware teapot has been painted in imitation of Chinese ‘famille rose’ porcelain. The term ‘famille rose’ describes a popular style of decoration used on porcelain produced in China in the 18th century for the Western market. The style was characterised by soft colours, particularly rose pink. Shells were a common decorative motif in the mid-18th century and several different models of shell teapots were produced by the creative Staffordshire potters at this time.
More innovative new glazes were also developed that mimicked precious stones such as agate (shown in this teapot below). The unnamed Staffordshire potter who made this teapot has also added a Buddhist lion knob to the lid to enhance its Oriental appeal.
By the 1770s new designs for teapots featuring fruit or vegetable mouldings became very popular.
It wasn’t just the glazing and surface decoration of teapots that saw extensive innovation, as during the middle of the 18th century the first novelty teapots were introduced. Factories had responded to widening markets and pushed developments in materials and techniques allowing production of moulded as opposed to thrown teapots such as this sitting camel teapot.
This teapot is made in white salt-glazed stoneware and is modelled as a sitting camel, with its legs tucked under its body. It has been made using the slip casting technique. Slip casting using moulds had actually been invented 50 years previously by David and John Elers, but was revived to allow the manufacture of complex and highly irregular shapes in bulk. Slip casting involved thinning white clays mixed with calcined flint to a viscous liquid that was poured into hollow plaster moulds. These moulds were made by specialist craftsmen. Enough Staffordshire slip-cast camel teapots have survived that they are not all sitting on the shelves of museums – you can still buy one from an antique dealer or auction house if you have a spare £5000!
Of course, in the mid-18th century more ordinary folk might have saved up to buy a less glamorous teapot perhaps one similar to this orange-brown earthenware example. It would have cost a shilling, equivalent to about £70 today. Teapots like this one were mass-produced and sold through ‘Staffordshire Warehouses’. These shops had opened across the country in most major towns and cities selling teawares to meet the demand for this newly acquired social pastime – ‘tea-drinking’.
Delivering his third talk in the Reith Lecture series, Grayson Perry contemplates whether contemporary art still has the power to shock. He delivers his lecture called ‘Nice Rebellion, Welcome In!’ in a lively, entertaining style with no stuffiness, but don’t be fooled he is seriously questioning the importance of sincerity in our postmodern, ironic world. Available to listen to at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03f9bg7
Drawing on his own experience Grayson Perry recounts how he found the world of 1980s postmodernism had already been there and done it all. The art world’s relentless quest for the new, innovative, cutting edge idea had used up ‘shock’ and negated its power. Anything could be art and nothing could shock anymore. Grayson suggests even the lifestyle of the artist has been democratised and incorporated into everyday living, all kinds of people are bobos. That is ordinary folk that now have a little bit of bohemian-ness about them. Bobos is short for bourgeois and bohemian (coined by David Brooks in 2000 in his book ‘Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There). Grayson mused that, “Since the 1960s everyone’s become a bit of an artist”.
Of his own debut into the world of contemporary art Grayson Perry had wanted to shock and had wanted to announce, “You’re the old people who made rusty metal sculptures we are the new people who are making this sort of work!”, but it had all been done. Talking of rusty metal, Richard Serra springs to mind and particularly for me, as by chance, my sister and I looked around ‘Fulcrum’ a couple of weeks ago. Richard Serra has been disturbing space and us with his enormous rusting steel sculptures since the early 1970s. His site-specific work nowadays may still be called challenging and is sometimes controversial due its sheer size, in this case 55 feet/16.8 metres of rusting steel, but it does not shock. More of Serra’s smaller scale work can be seen at http://www.saatchigallery.com/aipe/richard_serra.htm
Through the course of the lecture Grayson Perry develops the idea that art is in its end game and although there will always be new work it is only ‘tweaking’ a past idea. And, he suggests that what will separate out the good artist will not be all the postmodern knowing and cynicism attached to their work, but the artist’s sincere intent in its creation. Finally, as a parting shot Grayson commented that a contemporary art work could possibly shock by being beautiful!
Here are a couple of pieces of ageing metal, both functional, one’s a flagpole and one’s a hot water cylinder. Beautiful? Art?
One of the three Leopardi bronze flagpoles in St Mark’s Square, Venice. c.1505