“China” enters Britain

It’s the late 1600’s and people are asking “What is this fine, white porcelain that is coming in from China on the tea boats?”  Crates of this porcelain is being offloaded from the ships and stacked on the piers.  But, what is it?  What is it for?  These crates would be stacked on the bottom of the hold in the ships to provide ballast as well as to provide a dry floor for the tea crates to sit on.

Dutch East India Company c.1620

Dutch East India Company c.1620

Although the Dutch East India Company did not import these items at that time, the ships’ captains realized their value to the newly-enamored, wealthy tea drinkers and began profiting from their sale on the black market.

As early as 1530, fine Chinese porcelain in the form of vases, figurines and bowls were given as gifts to the Aristocracy (and are still on display in various museums around the world).  Exotic items such as ostrich eggs, Turkish and Russian pottery, and Chinese porcelain were among Queen Mary’s and then Elizabeth’s most prized possessions.  The delicacy of fine Chinese porcelain was valued and appreciated over the rough, heavy British earthenware.

It was about this time that the word “Chinaware” was incorporated into the English language to describe these porcelain bowls, pots and cups.  By the 1700’s the demand for this fine porcelain had reached record numbers and the term “China” was being used by most people.  From the records of the Fleet Frigate, “205 chests of China and Japan ware and a great deal loose earthenware, was packed on board.”

In 1724 in “Tour Thru the Whole Island of Great Britain” Defoe wrote, “The Queen brought in the custom, as I may call it, of furnishing Houses with China-ware….piling their China upon the tops of cabinets, structures and every chimney piece.”  China-mania had begun!!

Painting by Arthur Devis, c. 1750

Painting by Arthur Devis, c. 1750

By the end of the 1700’s most of Europe had obtained a few pieces of this fine “China” and the practice of displaying these luxurious pieces came into play, hence the “China closet“.  Louis XIV was so enamored of this decorative tableware he ordered a complete set consisting of hundreds of pieces.

Although a few other colors were imported from China, it was the very popular blue and white porcelain bowls, pots and cups that were the most popular. The Dutch East India Company was now the sole importer for everything from the East, and as a result, all imports came through the ports in Holland. Dutch potters, observing the demand for these items, became inspired and began to create their own pottery, which became known as Delftware.  Colors, patterns and designs were copied directly from the Chinese, but slowly European images began to be used …. windmills, fish, swans, etc., and the first of new shapes took form. The best known was the creation of the “plate“.

English potters were desperate to create this fine white porcelain.  European potters had created a soft porcelain made with white clay and ground glass.  But how to create a hard porcelain that would stand up to the heat requirements of tea?  It was discovered that the ashes of calcined bones could act as a strengthening agent in the paste.  This then became known as fine “English porcelain” now identified as “bone China“.

Worcester porcelain teacup and saucer c.1700

Worcester porcelain teacup and saucer c.1700

The development of the pottery district in England came after bone China was perfected.  From Davenport to Spode to Minton to Wedgewood, most of the successful potters located in the area of Stoke-upon-Trent.

I’ve seen other blogs which credit Robert Adams as the inventor of the tea cup handle.  Unfortunately, I’ve never found any documentation to support that theory.  Handles on tea cups came into use as soon as the Chinese realized that Europeans drank their tea much hotter than they did and in larger ‘bowls’.  Handles started appearing on ‘tea bowls’ as early as the 1700’s.  It was quite common before then to simply pour the tea from the ‘tea bowl’ into the accompanying saucer to cool, and then to drink from that.  After tea cups had handles, it was deemed only the lower class would ever drink from the saucer.

Needless to say, “tea” and “tea equipage” at this point in history was only for the upper classes.  A London magazine in 1744 noted, “it could cost more to maintain a fashionable tea table, with its expensive tea and utensils, than to keep two children and a nurse.” Despite this expense, tea continued to play an essential role in the social life of the British and the world.
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References:  Antique English Pottery, TEA East and West by Rupert Faulkner, Comparative Arts & Media Studies, Specialization in Design Culturesby Irene Maldini

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