Friday, 14 December 2007


The teapot is an artefact whose status has changed throughout it‘s 350 year history. It has had continuous use and development from a luxury, imported item in the 17th century to a functional, common object throughout the modern period -1860-1960, to an artistic, functionless form for expression in the post modern period-1960 to the present, as well as maintaining it’s pure function. The teapot is also the bearer of meaning, a homely comforting object. Clark suggests “there is something about this shape and it’s social baggage that has bonded itself to the human soul. It sums up turbulent history, evinces domestic comfort and lends itself to all kinds of exploratory caprices…Plump and stout, it has found a universal and permanent, and comfortable place in our material culture” (Clark, 2004, 203).Tea is the most common hot beverage to be drunk internationally - (more tea is produced than coffee) and most cultures have ceremonies surrounding it’s consumption (Clark,2004, 11).

Fig 1-
Yixing Teapot. Ming Dynasty. Ceramic. 1533. Nanjing Museum.

China, see Fig 2. Tea had been drunk as a hot beverage in the far east for 2000 years. Associated with this were complex ritual and ceramic tea ware used to perform these rituals. The teapots first origins are recorded in mythology, but the first teapots seemed to have been produced during the Ming Dynasty by a monk, 1506-1521, in the Yixing Region . “These modestly scaled objects were to have a greater impact on ceramic design than any single ceramic style imitated in Japan, Korea, Thailand and throughout Europe (Clark, 2004,14). Fig 1 shows an Yixing teapot which was excavated from a Ming Dynasty context-16th century. Fig 2 was imported into England and probably used by some one wealthy circa 1750. These teapots were hand constructed, un-glazed, high status items with ritual meanings.

YIXING TEAPOT. ca 1730-175. Victoria and Albert Museum Collection

The teapot was introduced to Britain via the Dutch, who began importing tea circa 1650. The first teapots to be imported were the Yixing teapots, from China, see Fig 2. Tea drinking became as huge a cultural phenomenon in Europe , where, from 1700 onwards the teapot developed from a luxury, high status object to become a mass produced, homely, convivial object from which a group of people of low social status could share a hot drink. Tea was seen as having health properties, giving comfort in times of stress, and has even given it’s name to a meal- “teatime“. High tea was started as a social occasion by the 7th Duchess of Bedford in 1840 ( Clark 2004, 21).Teatime food i.e. sandwiches and cakes, have been invented to accompany tea and other items - strainers, cups, sugar cubes, milk jugs, tea trays were made to accompany the teapot in serving tea.

The tea trade made individuals super rich which was a new social phenomenon in that members of the lower classes became more rich and powerful through trade than the traditional, aristocratic basis of power. This was typical; of trends at the tome when individuals were becoming wealthier across the population an gave rise to a much wider middle class. International trade, especially the tea trade, was responsible for creating a new strata of rich business men who were separate from the traditional, aristocratic basis of power. The massive increase in trade also necessitated a rise in white collar workers, clerical staff who could administrate the growing economy. These two points come together to show how they came to be a much larger middle class who had aspirations toward upper class manners and mores with a demonstration of their new found status through displays of their new wealth. One way in which this can be illustrated is through the middle class adoption of teatime for example emulating the upper classes.

This essay will attempt to discuss the cultural, economic and social importance of teapots and evaluate it’s impact on design in the pre-modern period (known as the Enlightenment, it refers to the 18th century when the belief that reason and science were the basis for knowledge, ethics and aesthetics. It was the age of the rise of capitalism, socialism and revolutions. It’s leaders believed in progress, doing away with superstition and tyranny. The Post Medieval period 1650-1900 refers more or less to the same period but is a phrase coined by archaeologists to refer to contexts of the era. From these contexts come huge amounts of ceramic material which are evidence for the social and economic conditions of a wider population than perhaps even history records. The Early industrial Revolution is the same period again but refers to massive social ,technological and economic change of the 18th and 19th century in Great Britain. It was fuelled largely by coal, the automated machine was invented for the textile industry and mass production was the means of production bringing with it increasing specialisation. It spread throughout Europe and North America during the 19th century. (online, date accessed 04-03-05.) There will be particular reference to the contemporary interest in the teapot which has seen two major exhibitions in America,2001, 2004. This essay will discuss the teapots use and development with reference to the studio pottery movement.


As stated above, the teapot was introduced to mid 17th century Britain which period saw huge technological and social development . This is the age when the consumer society really begins to emerge. Many factors converged to make the establishment of this vessel and beverage take hold.

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