Posted in Decorative Arts, TV Programme

Chinese Porcelain and the Fashion for Tea-Drinking

Miniature, inexpensive, Chinese teapot I brought on a trip to China a decade ago.

The 18th century British aristocrat couldn’t get enough Chinese tea and porcelain and would go to any length to acquire it. It was seen as a sign of wealth, sophistication and open-mindedness.  By the 1750s two million pieces of porcelain had arrived in London from Cathay/China. In 18th century Britain, tea-drinking became the must-do aristocratic activity, hence the ferocious demand for Chinese porcelain at this time. Nearly 100% of imported porcelain came from the Jingdezhen region of China, an area rich in natural resources. Chinese porcelain is of the highest quality, chip and heat resistant. Its base constituent is Kaolin clay extracted from rock at Mount Gaoling.  In 1004 the Jingdezhen region was given an imperial decree for its porcelain production.

Canton was the main port of entry for European merchants participating in The China Trade.  The Emperor believed these merchants to be nothing more than pirates and placed an embargo on their travel out of Canton and across mainland China. This meant merchants had to remain in port and porcelain wares brought all the way from Jingdezhen to Canton to facilitate a transaction, distance between these two destinations was 700 miles overland.  It was not unusual for merchants to remain in Canton for 2 years waiting for their porcelain orders to arrive.

Chinese porcelain design does not follow western rules of perspective. The images are rich in symbolism and typical motives include flowers, pine, bamboo, prunus blossom or pagoda landscapes. The traditional colour scheme is blue and white. The pagoda landscape was the style that inspired the famous Willow pattern designed by English potter Thomas Minton in 1790.

Spotting a gap in the affordable teaware market in Britain, two enterprising German brothers, Silversmiths by trade, John Philip Elers (1664-1738) and David Elers (1656-1742), created red stoneware teapots.  The Elers brothers discovered their trademark red clay at Bradwell in Staffordshire. The teapots were decorated with stamped reliefs of Chinese prunus blossoms. English potter Josiah Spode (1733-1797) was the first in Britain to invent an alternative to Chinese porcelain. Josiah came from humble beginnings, he was the son of a pauper and orphaned at the age of 6. He had been experimenting with formulas for porcelain over many, many years and it wasn’t until he reached the age of 60 that he was able to finalise all the components.  Josiah created Creamware.  Creamware was made of stone and clay from Cornwall mixed with ash burnt animal bones, hence the name ‘bone china’.

Dish for placing tea cups on from my Chinese tea set.
One of the cups from my Chinese tea set.

I travelled to Hong Kong and China a decade ago.  Extraordinary country which exudes a mysterious charm and for me one of the best study trips I have ever undertaken. I visited The Flagstaff Museum of Tea Ware inside Hong Kong Park which was established in 1984. The Flagstaff House, built in the 1840s, was originally the office and residence of the Commander of the British Forces in Hong Kong. The Museum contains many rare and famous examples of Yixing teapots. Yixing stoneware teapots are made from Yixing red clay and in my view are beautiful works of art. Their smooth exterior, sensuous curves and earthy tones elevate the humble teapot to the status of a work of art and this is also reflected in the price of Yixing teapots today.

The Flagstaff Museum of Tea Ware, Hong Kong Park, Hong Kong.
The Flagstaff Museum of Tea Ware, Hong Kong Park, Hong Kong.

Whilst in China I purchased an inexpensive tea set and associated tea-making accessories.  I did have a Gaiwan tea bowl, which is used for steeping and infusing the loose tea leaves in boiling water, it functions similar to a teapot. Unfortunately, it met a sticky end a number of years ago thanks to my cat Lucy who thought the delicate porcelain object made a good prop to play paw football with! My tea-set is delicate with doll-like proportions and each item has been crafted to perform a specific purpose. It is a very calming experience to prepare China tea properly.  Instead of inserting instructions here on how to prepare China tea, I have found a really good website produced by the Canton Tea Co, China tea specialists, based in Bristol.  Click here to see a video demonstration on How to Use a Gaiwan.This website is packed with lots of fascinating information, providing you with everything you need to know about choosing and preparing China tea.

Tea-making accessories from my Chinese teaset.


Social historian, based in the UK.

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