Thursday, March 22, 2018

Tea History 101: The Value of 18th Century Teaware

I love history, especially when it involves tea! I also love to share the tidbits I'm learning here on the blog. I recently had the pleasure of attending a seminar on tea etiquette by Bruce Richardson, who co-authored A Social History of Tea, one of my favorite books on Western tea history. Bruce gave an informative seminar on afternoon tea etiquette throughout history, and one photo he shared in particular struck me as interesting:

Family Of Three (c.1727) by Richard Collins. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This is a painting of a family enjoying tea with beautiful tea accessories, and drinking from tea bowls! I didn't realize that it was common to sit with your tea and teaware for paintings in the 18th century. During his seminar, Mr. Richardson mentioned European families often put their most valuable possessions in their paintings, so it makes sense that teapots, teaware and tea bowls are often seen in them. Teaware in the 1700s was very expensive and difficult to acquire, therefore quite valuable to a family. The above painting is part of the Victoria and Albert Museum's collection in London, and per the V&As website:
When painting 'conversation pieces' (relaxed portraits of family groups or gatherings of friends), artists were expected not only to show their sitters in fine clothes, but would also be obliged to include valuable possessions, indicating their wealth and social status.
Eighteenth Century European tea drinkers such as the ones in the painting enjoyed tea from bowls, since that's how it was consumed in China and Japan (and still is today). European exporters simply purchased the tea ware in Japan and China and shipped it off to England. Commissions for specific designs and sizes came later, as did manufacture within Europe. The woman in the painting looks as if her pinky is 'up' but most likely she is extending her pinky to counterbalance the bowl, and also to keep her digits cool from the hot bowl. By the way, putting your 'pinky up' for afternoon tea is a definite myth! But more on 18th century tea bowls- handles were added later, per wikipedia: 
Tea bowls in the Far East did not have handles, and the first European imitations, made at Meissen, were without handles, too. At the turn of the 19th century 'canns' of cylindrical form with handles became a fashionable alternative to bowl-shaped cups.
The pieces of tea ware available during this time were often shipped from China and Japan in mixed batches and most families did not have matching sets. They often purchased individual pieces one at a time. This was well before the large fancy European tea sets were available. European artisans started to reproducing teaware they saw from China in the early 1700s, but re-creating the delicate pieces was difficult and artisans didn't master the technique until the mid-eighteenth century. Companies such as Meissen mentioned in the quote above, started creating tea bowls and other teaware, and later produced cups with handles. 

An old Meissen demitasse cup from my collection, but this one has a handle!

According to the book Steeped In History, Europeans required handles because they drank mostly black tea, which (as you know) is usually served at a higher temperature than green tea. The hot temperatures made it difficult to hold the delicate tea bowls. Just think about the woman in the painting above, trying to balance her hot tea bowl in her hand! The child in the photo is also holding her bowl quite precariously. When I use a gaiwan to prepare black tea such as dian hong, I do admit I have a hard time holding it because of the temperature. It makes sense handles were developed when black tea became the popular choice in England and much of Western Europe. If you have an antique European tea cup that doesn't have a handle, chances are it's quite old! 

Have you come across Eighteenth Century European portraits that include teaware? Or the teaware itself? If so I'd love to hear more about what you've seen!

For more bits of tea history, check out my previous posts on such things as Americans sipped tea before the Britstea and the presidency, and tea and women's suffrage


  1. I would like permission to use the pictures of the paintings of people holding tea bowls for an article in BLUEBERRY NOTES, a quarterly publication of the Flow Blue International Collectors' Club, a non-profit organization of members who collect flow blue and mulberry china. Thank you .

    1. Hello, this painting is from the Royal Victoria and Albert museum in London. I'm not sure if they require special permission for this or not.