Still life with Yixing teapot
So, when is a teapot not a teapot? This may sound like a trick question from Mastermind, but it is a valid query when it comes to the Chinese version of the vessel. The answer is, ‘When it is not a wine pot.’
The Ch’a Ching, the earliest book on the subject of tea, appeared in China in 780. Legend has it that tea was first drunk there more than three thousand years before, but it was under the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that the drink became fashionable and the wild tea plant, Camellia sinensis, was brought into cultivation (Source: Hampshire Cultural Trust, The Allen Gallery).
Fanciful ivory teapot (left) and Qianlong cloisonné wine pot (right)
The first significant imports of tea to Europe arrived in the early years of the 17th century. They came thanks to Portugal’s development of sea-routes to China and the trading skills of the Dutch. Surprisingly, there is debate as to whether the Chinese used teapots at this time. If so, they would have represented quite a recent change to the traditional method of making tea, in which the drink was brewed in open pans or in the actual cup using specially prepared ‘tea paste’.. Such teapots as were manufactured were unglazed, the Yixing style of pot, made from brown or purple clay, being most common and these started in production some time around 1500.
Typical unglazed Yixing teapot
Assuming it existed, the Chinese teapot was indistinguishable from what is termed a wine-pot or wine-ewer. Vessels of this type were exported along with the tea itself and if not actually intended for tea-making, may have been interpreted as being so here in the West.
As James Norwood Pratt writes in The Tea Lover’s Treasury, ‘The teapot has not always been the undisputed lord of the tea service; historically the teacup comes first.’ He explains how tea ‘bricks’ were crumbled into kettles filled with boiling water. Pratt also notes that the first teapots of which positive records exist only appear around the year 1500.
However, he does find this discovery hard to believe because there has been much conjecture among tea scholars that the wine ewer, a tall, water-pitcher-shaped vessel with a spout, resembled a teapot, and, ‘it strains credulity to believe so inventive a people as the Chinese never thought to brew tea in their so-called wine ewers.’
As Laura Everage points out in Teapots through the Ages (December 2006), ‘During the 17th century, Europeans were introduced to the beauty of Chinese pottery through the East India Company, which imported the tea and used the pots as ballast in the lower portion of the cargo ships, while the tea was stored above the water line.’
A true distinction between wine-ewers and teapots was only established after 1694, when the British East India Company directed that teapots made for them in China must have “a grate… before the spout”. In other words, they wanted a sort of pierced barrier where the tea enters the spout so as to hold back the tea-leaves. Of course, it was not long before European ceramicists started to copy examples arriving from China and sometimes it can be difficult to differentiate between the two.
Anita Gray, at Gray’s Antiques Market in London has some interesting examples of teapots manufactured during the Qianlong era and which are shortly to go on open sale.
A Chinese Armorial Teapot and Cover (ref BC60). Of oval form, with c-shaped handle, straight spout and low domed cover finished with a bud finial, the body boldly painted in shades of overglaze blue with large well-drawn flowering branches, including lotus, continuing around the pot, an armorial painted on either side of the pot in iron-red, black and gilding of a cockerel holding a branch in its beak above a winged coronet, both below a border of fleur-de-lys outlined in iron-red and gilding around the base of the short neck, the cover similarly decorated with large blossoming blooms and a fleur-de-lys border around the rim, the base glazed.
Period: Qianlong 1736-1795 Height: 12.5 cm; 5 in
A Chinese famille rose ‘European-Subject’ Teapot and cover (ref BC69). Of rounded form, with c-shaped handle, straight spout and low domed cover finished with a bud finial, the body painted in famille rose enamels with a European figurative scene of a lady dressed in long robes carrying a basket of flowers, a male figure with his hand on her shoulder dressed in short trousers, a blue jacket and a black hat stands next to her holding a garden fork, a multitude of flowers grow nearby with a further woman similarly dressed in European clothing watering the flowers with a large vessel, a tall tree to their right, the scene repeated on the opposite side of the teapot, the cover with a matching scene of floral foliage and a tall tree, the base glazed.
Period: Qianlong 1736-1795 Height (including cover): 12 cm; 4 ¾ in
A Chinese famille rose ‘European-subject’ teapot and cover (ref BC58) Of oval form, with c-shaped handle, straight spout and low domed cover finished with a bud finial, the body painted in famille rose enamels with a landscape, a ruin in the background and in the foreground two European figures reclining against a rock, one, a lady, dressed in a long dress and wearing a hat decorated with flowers, the other, a gentleman, wearing a short coat, short trouser and a hat, their arms entwined as they each hold a small glass in their hand, at their feet two spotty dogs await, two trees nearby, their trunks mirroring the intertwining of the couple’s arms, the scene repeated on the opposite side of the teapot, the cover with a matching scene of intertwining trees and ruins, the bud finial gilded and the base glazed.
Period: Qianlong 1736-1795 Height (including cover): 13.5 cm; 5 ¼ in
A Chinese famille rose teapot and cover depicting the Judgement of Paris. (ref BC54). Of globular form, with a straight spout, c-shaped handle and domed cover with a bud finial, painted on either side with Paris seated wearing a puce robe, with a small dog beside him, and offering a green object to Aphrodite who is flanked by Hera and Athena, and with Cupid looking on, Hera and Aphrodite only covered by either a shawl or a fan, Athena dressed in long iron-red and yellow robes, at their feet a bird, pine trees enclosing the scene, the cover with birds in flight, a similar large bird and pine and finished with a bud finial, the base glazed. Period: Qianlong 1736-1795
Height: 14 cm; 5 ½ in
Footnote: This is the most popular European design on Chinese porcelain of the 1740s and there are at least six different variations. The scene depicts King Priam’s son Paris judging who of the goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite was the most beautiful – he chooses Aphrodite by handing her an apple.
A very similar example of a teapot is in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, illustrated in William R. Sargent, Treasures of Chinese Export Ceramics – From the Peabody Essex Museum, 2012, other forms but with the same mythological motif include a barber’s bowl from Historic Deerfield, Deerfield, MA (illustrated by Lange 2005, 165, no. 52); a dish from Östasiatiska Museet, Stockholm, (illustrated in Wirgin 1998, 187, no. 201), a plate in the Victoria and Albert Museum (C.342-1931), London (illustrated in Kerr and Mengoni 2011, 71, no. 93). For further examples decorated with this scene see Scheurleer, Chinese Export Porcelain, illus. 225, 226; Beurdeley, Porcelain of the East India Company, Cat. 31, 130; Howard & Ayers, China for the West, p.329. For a plate with the same scene see Lloyd Hyde, Oriental Lowestoft (New York, 1936), pl. XIV, p.43 and Beurdeley, Cats 31, 130, 131. See also Anita Gray, Catalogue of Oriental Ceramics and Works of Art, pl.97b, p.67.
These teapots from Anita Gray will be unveiled and will be on sale from Monday February 16 and can be viewed, using the quoted reference numbers, on www.chinese-porcelain.com.
Chinese Art in Scotland have just put up for sale a very large wine pot (auctioned off, hardly surprisingly, as a teapot) on their ceramics page. It is 33cm in height with cover, well decorated and embellished in gold. Said Sun Yumei, a partner in the business, ‘It had been in a house where there had been a fire and the lovely decoration was almost obscured by a layer of oil left by exposure to smoke. Apart from the smoke damage, it was in perfect condition and it has cleaned up wonderfully and is now brilliant and gleaming.’ Chinese Art in Scotland have left the footed base un-cleaned, just for the historical record.
There is no grate before the spout so this vessel is based upon the wine ewer, or wine pot, as it is often known. However, it is unlikely to be pre-1694 and is probably a late 18th or 19th century object, in the view of the vendors.
Large wine pot Picture courtesy Chinese Art in Scotland