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The History and Design of Teapots


Teapots: One Possible Historical Overview

According to Chou Kao-ch'i, author of Yang-Hsien ming hu hsi, an account of Ishing (Yixing) teapots, early in the sixteenth century, the potters at Ishing, 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.

The Teapot 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. Company directors were especially concerned that teapots not drip and stain the valuable linen that they also marketed.

A New Technology: Porcelain

In 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 shape, some pear shaped ones were popular. Spouts were often shaped as dragons or other animals. Handles were elaborately embellished with scrolls and similar designs.

A New Market for Teapots

As Europe industrialized, a growing middle class developed. With cash increasingly available, this new group sought to copy the visual elements of the life style of the upper classes. This included the developing ritual of Afternoon Tea. As such, teapots in unheard of numbers were suddenly needed. Artist-merchants such as Josiah Wedgwood and Josiah Spode responded to that new market. Architects such as Robert Adams designed entire rooms (including the furniture and tea service to be used there) as "complete stages" on which enact a stylish lifestyle in this elegant century.

The Silver Tea Service

It is at this time (1730's) that the first silver service pots for tea 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.

Teapot Design Trends

Perhaps as a reaction of the mass bloodletting that occurred, tea china during the 1800's was an exercise in fantasy design. Beginning in the 1820's with Rococo, novelty was valued over taste and style. Every major trend in Victorian art and craft styles was reflected including:

  • Renaissance
  • Gothic
  • Chinese
  • Moorish
  • Arts and Crafts Movement (per William Morris)
  • Japanese Arts (heavily influenced by the 1862 Japanese Exhibit)
  • Art Nouveau (massive floral forms)

Indeed, such influences were strong enough to prompt a cartoon in the English magazine, Punch, to show a couple in the late 1880's admiring their new teapot, designed "a la Japanese", and remarking that they must truly struggle to make their lives "worthy of such pure design". The cartoon is additionally humorous because of the fact that if anything was NOT present in teapot designs during the Victorian period,it was "pure design".

20th Century Design

It may be human nature to react negatively against such a flood of embellishment. Designs at the beginning of the twentieth century returned to simpler forms. By the 1920's teapots were designed to be "functional", within the tradition of the architect and designer Corbusier, a major influence. Among the most notable of the teapots designed by this school were the "cube teapots", which were, as the name suggests, square.

The 1930's saw the advent of the Art Deco Movement. The machine was seen as an art object with teapots being designed during this period as race cars, railroad engines, airplanes, and even tanks. Few teapots were produced during World War II due to the absorption of all non-vital production into war efforts.

Teapots during the 1960's were functional, reflecting the current trend of "modernism". By the 1970's novelty teapots reappeared, this time as a variety of animals and even as space capsules. During the 1980's, an elegance returned to the design of teapots, with many classic patterns from the 1700's and early 1800's being reproduced.

Common Types and Styles of Teapots



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