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.
Posted in Decorative Arts, Exhibition, History, TV Programme

Footprints in Clay – British Ceramics and Pottery

Tudor Cistercian Ware from South Yorkshire/Midlands. Figures supported a dish containing salt. Dish now lost. Tudor House & Garden, Southampton, Hampshire.

The Victoria and Albert Museum and BBC 4 have embarked upon a year-long collaboration exploring the history of British Decorative Arts, Handmade in Britain: a BBC and V & A Partnership.  The three-part series Ceramics: A Fragile History has recently aired on BBC 4, each episode focussing upon a different aspect in the history of British pottery: The Story of Clay; The Age of Wedgwood and The Art of the Potter.  In addition, BBC 4 have produced a documentary on the Treasures of Chinese Porcelain and another on the East Window at York Minster, in which historian Dr Janina Ramirez unlocks the secrets of this magnificent stained-glass window, the largest of its kind in the UK.  This posting will be the first of several, providing my response to this landmark collaborative project. In the last couple of weeks I have plundered my art history books, visited museum collections and gone through thousands of digital and photographic images I have taken over the years, to bring you this series which I hope you will find interesting.

The series Ceramics: A Fragile History positions pottery within its socio-economic context, an object infused with social DNA and a snapshot of society preserved in clay. The history of domestic pottery in Britain dates back 5,000 years to Neolithic times, when functionality presided over form. Until the late 16th century red clay was used as the base constituent and in the 1660s the appearance of British domestic pottery began to change following an influx of Dutch and German artisans fleeing religious persecution in their respective homelands. English delftware slowly emerged and by the end of the 18th century the term ‘delftware’ was used to refer to tin-glazed earthenware made in Britain. Tin-glazing enabled potters to decorate their objects with coloured pigments applied over a lead glaze, made opaque by the addition of tin. English delftware should not be confused with Dutch delftware.

Tudor stoneware jug from The Rhineland. Tudor House and Garden, Southampton, Hampshire.

British pottery certainly came of age in the 1600s. Another European import was stoneware, a favourite with German wine exporters from the Rhineland region. Stoneware was very hard, knock and water resistant.  In the 1670s, John Dwight, an Alchemist and Venture Capitalist from London, managed to solve the mystery of how to produce stoneware.  In 1672 he opened his factory, Fulham Pottery, which remained in business for 300 years.  The factory no longer exists but the bottle kiln still does.

Brown glazed earthernware 'tig' from Alderholt, East Dorset. The two handles enable it to be passed around at a gathering. Tudor House & Garden, Southampton, Hampshire

Slipware was a course rustic-looking earthenware, popular in rural communities but not great for everyday use as it chipped easily.  Thomas Toft is a key figure in the development of slipware.   His most prolific period was from the 1660s to the 1680s, he died in 1689.  His dishes are characteristically 18-20 inches in diameter with a half inch rim and the centre decorated in earthy tones: dark brown; chocolate and pale brown.

Pottery has been used through the ages as a canvas to mark important events in an individual’s journey through life such as births, marriages and deaths or even key historical events – for example a Royal Wedding.  In the course of my travels over the years I have purchased many china souvenirs emblazoned with the name of the town visited. Admittedly, I have subsequently sold on many such porcelain trinkets at table-top sales, boot fairs or have donated them to my local charity shops.

1860-1915. Pottery can be used to entertain and amuse. Ceramic Fairings, brought as souvenirs at fairs. Tudor House & Garden, Southampton, Hampshire.

Tea-bowl, late 1700s. Refined earthenware imitating imported porcelain. Tudor House & Garden, Southampton, Hampshire

In 18th century Britain, a fashion for tea-drinking generated a demand for porcelain from China, specifically the Jingdezhen region. The tea-drinking ceremony and associated paraphernalia, transformed the elegant Georgian drawing-room into a performance space and porcelain tea sets with glittering gilt-edges became the stars of the show. The humble teapot evolved as a potent, matriarchal symbol of hearth and home, positioned at the head of the household. How many times have you heard the phrase, “shall I be mum”, preceding the pouring and assembling of a cup of tea?

White salt-glazed cup, circa 1720 for drinking chocolate. Tudor House & Garden, Southampton, Hampshire.

In 1794 Josiah Spode developed a formula for bone china, a mix of china clay, stone and ground bone.  Bone china revolutionised domestic pottery.  Transfer printing onto china was also popular at this time enabling wares to be mass-produced and not subjected to the labour intensive process of hand-painting.

Transfer decorated plate showing the 'evils of drink', 1800s. Tudor House & Garden, Southampton, Hampshire.

In the 19th century, a Victorian obsession with sanitation fashioned an unlikely use for stoneware. Civil Engineer, Sir Joseph Bazalgette created a sewer network for central London, which opened in 1865.  Sir Henry Doulton provided the stoneware pipes. The first flushing toilets were created by George Jennings and visitors to the 1851 Great Exhibition paid a penny for the privilege of using them. Ceramic sanitary ware became elevated to works of art and objects of beauty but all the while retaining functionality. Elaborate WCs with painted designs, transfers or hand enamelling were all the rage.  Tommy Twyford & Doultons were pioneers in this field. Underneath the Wesley Chapel, City Road, London you can still see today early examples of a Thomas Crapper toilet with the cubicles and sanitaryware fully intact. The toilets were built in 1891 and are a most attractive example of ceramic sanitary ware from this period.  Many Victorian homes, shops and restaurants incorporated ceramic tiles in their exterior and interior designs. In 1870 the Refreshment Room at the V & A was decorated floor-to-ceiling with Doulton tiles. In 1902 Arts and Crafts ceramic sculptor and artist William James Neatby (1860-1910) designed the Doulton & Co tiles for Harrods Food Hall.

1890, Doulton's white Carraraware tiles designed for the facade of Oakley & Watling Provisions and Fruit Merchants, 56 High Street, Southampton. Image is of a Southampton Hulk.

To find out more about  Handmade in Britain: a BBC and V & A PartnershipClick here.