L’affaire teapot [Archives:2006/969/Education]

August 3 2006

By: Amrita Satapathy
Ph. D. Scholar
Utkal University
Orissa, India
[email protected]

“My love for you is like tea, and I my darling, am your teapot, pour my love and drink me quick”. Thus proposed a friend of mine to his girl friend. Well, I was a trifle amazed at the expression, but what really geared my dormant brain cells into action was the 'Teapot'. It took me down the memory lane to those years of infantile activities when I had enacted the part of a tea-pot in a kindergarten school play reciting with much enthusiasm the teapot rhyme- “I am a teapot, short and stout/ this is my handle and this is my spout!” That was my first and last stint with acting, but it sure led to my enduring infatuation with teapots. I was presented with my first little teapot as a birthday present from my mother. Since then teapots have captivated my aesthetic sensibility. Apart from being the mundane apparatus for pouring tea into a cup, teapots ooze a sense of style and are extremely classy much like a Victorian dame. They can be used for haute decor, as collectors' item, as a centrepiece, as child's play thing and anything else that your wild imagination can convert them into. Teapots come in a constellation of shapes and sizes and have been fashioned from every possible raw-material in this world – be it glass, earthen ware, enamel ware, tin, copper, steel, ceramic. Hand painted to ornamental, printed to plain, one can espy an array of designs on the shelves of supermarkets and picturesque antique shops. Interestingly, every part of the teapot – the handle, the lid, the body or the spout, has the flexibility of being artistically fashioned. From a common household utensil, the teapot has gradually evolved into a glamourized lifestyle product. It has literally poured its way, from the kitchen to the quicksilver world of advertising and the bizarre realm of animation. Let us see what makes the teapot such a coveted piece, for chic collectors and tea buffs alike. Tea drinking required a functional and an aesthetically gratifying vessel for everyday consumption. What better than a pot that can brew as well serve as a cup for tea? So let's do some 'pot' talk.

Everybody knows that the Chinese discovered tea. But the idea of the teapot's origin being traced to Europe is a contentious one. Scholars opine that tea was brewed from cups directly in ancient China. And according to some historians, the world's first teapots came to shape in Yixing, near Shanghai during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The idea of a teapot, with relation to tea was a vague one. It was more of a 'cooking-pot', a medium for cooking herbal medicine or a wine pot. These kettle-like pots were used for filtering the left over herbal concoctions. They were popularly known as “medicine pot”. The earliest teapot like pottery dates back to the Tang Dynasty. It was only after the Ming Dynasty that the “medicine pot” metamorphosed into the exquisite teapot. The first generation teapots (1573-1619) having a “linear” and “wrinkle texture” resembled a 'pumpkin'. Cheng Wu Yean, an artist of the 2nd period between 1621-1796, initiated the art of making teapots. The Chinese interpretation of a teapot is very interesting. Teapot making was an art of amalgamating two of the highest and diverse faculties – nature and mind. It was a belief amongst the Chinese that it is imperative to blend one's mind with nature in order to “comprehend” and “understand”. This philosophy was given shape in the form of a teapot. Thus, the second generation of teapots came in the shape of a cluster of bamboo shoots. Geometrical shaped teapots came into vogue in the 3rd period from 1662-1875. Chinese scholars classified these pots into 18 types. Thus they came to be known as the “Mong Seng 18”. The 4th period of Chinese tea pottery spans from the end of 19th century to around 1940. This was the age of antique imitations. Yixing teapots, though not very original, were heavily commercialized. Teapots from the Yixing region are known for their simple beauty and natural shades, from light buffs to tones of deep maroon. But the most traditional shade is that of 'zisha' or purple clay. The uniqueness of this teapot is that it can be used for brewing tea and drinking as well. But that is not all. The pots season gradually as the unglazed teapot absorbs the flavour of the brewed tea. According to a legend, if a Yixing teapot has been used for over a great period of time, it does not need tea leaves in the pot to brew a cup. These quaint little hand-made teapots are designed according to the artist's favourite motif or insignia. It is said that Yixing teapots accelerated the invention of the European porcelain teapots. Little wonder, that Yixing teapots are preferred by tea aficionados the world over. But the concept of a 'teapot' is in fact very European.

The teapot with which we are familiar is believed to have taken shape in Europe during the mid 1600s. As coffee drinking and coffee houses rose to dizzying heights, coffee pots and teapots too became increasingly popular. Initially there was hardly any difference between the two. Technically speaking, it is the contour that sets the two pots apart; coffee pots are tall whereas teapots are bulbous. It is believed that both the pots owe their formation to the Islamic coffee pots, which were then used in English coffee houses. The Chinese wine pots, which were being imported as curios, too influenced the shape of the teapot to a great extent. The Chinese wine-pot's globular shape is very evident in its contemporary cousin. But the initial teapots made in Europe were of heavy cast with a short, straight and replaceable spout. This was the experimental phase of tea pottery. Innovation in design, shapes and patterns were numerous. The octagonal and melon shapes, 'fantasy' pots in the shape of animals and plants were quite popular. Teapots shaped like rabbits, monkeys, squirrels, camels were considered 'exotic'. But these were failures because of their fragile nature. They lacked the durability and strength to withstand daily use. The quality of clay used was usually poor and so was the workmanship. Later in the beginning of the 18th century, the teapot became a colonial enterprise. As the East India Company rose to power, it started bringing in ideas, potters, craftsmen and craftsmanship from China. Artists were commissioned to fashion pots, which catered to European tastes. The designs were categorized into mock Oriental patterns like the 'Blue Willow' and 'The Tree of Life', European prints like the acclaimed 'Georgian “house” pattern', Armorials- pots bearing the coat of arms of aristocratic families, and the Innovative pots- like the ones we use now-a-days. But it was not until 1710 that the breakthrough technology for crafting pottery arrived. The age of classy and prim and proper porcelain had arrived. Meissen and Dresden in Germany became the Mecca of fine European china. The technique arrived in France and England in the mid-1700s. Baroque and Rococo became the hallmarks of tea pottery designing. During this time, the body of the teapot remained globular, but the handle and the spout came to be ornamented, rather elaborately. In some cases, the spouts assumed the shape of a dragon or other animals. And the handles became heavily embellished with scrolls.

Cerebral literati and fashionistas of the 18th century, who favoured the aromatic and strong coffee for that extra 'kick', always considered tea insipid and too watery for their tastes. It neither enlivened their repartee nor added a whimsical charm to their persona. It lacked the joie de vivre that sets apart coffee from all other drinks. Thus tea-drinking became synonymous with drawing-room chats and afternoon soirees. It gained prominence in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. It was during this time that the demand for teapots gained new momentum. Gradually it turned into a ritual. Drinking tea from a teapot became the custom of the noblesse oblige of the English society. This was during the late 17th century. English people started drinking tea very late. Tea was imported from China and Japan. Apart from tea, a part of the cargo also contained porcelain teapots, tea bowls, little tea jars. These attracted the attention of the sophisticated rich along with the exotic drink. These quaint crockery found their way into kitchen shelves as well as into the lady's boudoir, private closets and bedchamber where selected guests were entertained. The story goes that Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford, first introduced the Afternoon Tea Ritual, in 19th century England. Teapots were now accessorized to augment stylish lifestyle. An entire range of tea-things, from furniture to tea sets and designing drawing rooms for the affaire, set the wheels of the market rolling. Thus the teapot came to be associated with elegance and refinement. If coffee was institutionalized, the teapot came to be looked upon as a cultural icon.

It was a rage with novelists of the time to make a heyday out of tea ceremonies and drawing room gossips. From Jane Austen to the Bronte sisters and George Elliot and Somerset Maugham and E.M. Forster, none could escape the infectious grip of climaxes set around the teapot. Hector Hugo Munro, has put it very beautifully, ” Find yourself a cup; the teapot is behind you. Now tell me about a hundred things”.

The years following 1730 saw novelty in teapot designing. The graceful silver service teapots came to adorn tea rooms. The simple globular pot gave out to a straight-sided one. The oval shaped teapot arrived in 1770 and a few years later came the footed teapots. These were very utilitarian pots because they prevented the tabletops from getting charred or scarred due to the heat. The pewter teapot, a poor cousin to the classy silver teapot was manufactured in the Georgian Era, for those who could not afford expensive teapots. The cute “drum” shaped teapot was a rage for a short period during the later part of the 18th century. It took after the 'classical' style, which was favoured by the new French Republic. Porcelain historians wonder, if this seemingly inconspicuous teapot were a forewarning of the Napoleonic wars that rocked the entire breadth of Europe a few years later. 19th century was the era of haute teapots. This was the age of the designer and trendy teapots with Rococo being a name to be reckoned with. The most copied deigns were of those reflecting major ages like Renaissance, Gothic, Chinese, Moorish, the William Morris prints, the 1862 inspired Japanese Arts, and the enormous Art Nouveau floral prints. There was no 'pure design' as such during this period. The teapot had a big social impact. It became a matter of social etiquette to rise to the height of a teapot. One had to have a standing in society to be seen with the 'correct' kind of teapot. Simple and handy teapots were the order of the 1920s. The most prominent teapot of this period was the “cube teapot”, designed by noted architect and designer Corbusier. These teapots were square in shape. A decade later it was the Art Deco Movement, which shaped and moulded teapots. The racecar teapot, the railroad engine teapot, airplane teapot and the tank teapot became a reflection of the industrial and economic 20th century. It was a giant leap- from higher states of mind to the realm of machines. It was the coming of age of teapots. The swinging 60s continued the trend of the preceding years. As time passed by, teapots became more and more functional. 'Modernism' took a grip over teapottery. Uniqueness in teapots arrived once again in the flower powered 70s, mostly in the form of animals and space capsules. Classical patterns of the 1700s and early 1800s made a comeback in the electrifying 80s. A constellation of designer teapots came to deck the racks of pottery boutiques. Mass-made or customized, teapots were now a cherished keepsake for every avant-garde collector. Well, thanks to the 18th century potter and merchants Josiah Wedgwood and Josiah Spode for giving us the contemporary teapots.

Some of the famous teapots of the world are the Classic Brown Betty, the Japanese Tetsubin, the Russian Samovars and Lomonosov teapots, Yixing, Porcelain teapots of China, Japan and Germany, and the ever-utilitarian Clear Glass teapots. Made from red terracotta discovered in 1695, the Classic Brown Betty is a perfect English teapot. These teapots were traditionally made in Stoke-on-Trent in England. They are simple in shape and were the symbols of the significance of tea in 17th century English society. The Brown Betty's shape allows space for the tea leaves to swirl creating in turn an amazing concoction. The Japanese Tetsubin are actually cast iron teapots originally used for boiling water. When tea drinking was introduced in mid-19th century Japan, these teapots were elevated to serve as status symbols. Though the exterior is cast iron the teapot's interior is enameled, which preserves the heat well. The Tetsubin are beautiful, embossed with intricate art works. They are an integral part of Japanese tea ceremony, an indirect offshoot of Zen Buddhism. The delicate nature of the teapots prevents them from being heated directly. Instead, water is heated separately and then poured into it. The Russian teapot or Samovar, finds mention in documents as far back as mid-18th century. Unlike its sophisticated counterparts, this polished and glowing teapot became domesticated, the essence of Russian everyday life. This is the most unique of all teapots because, at its heart lies a fire tube like jug that is soldered to the body. Charcoal is fed into this tube, which heats water. Samovars come in all sizes, from 3 to 30 litres. The largest Russian samovar was manufactured in Tula in the year 1922. It had a capacity of 250 litres. It took approximately 40 minutes for water to boil in this teapot. The best thing about this gigantic teapot was that water remained hot in it for 2 days. The Batashovs and the Vorontsovs were acclaimed manufacturers of samovars. Antique samovars are usually trademarked and are real pieces of art. There are hand-painted samovars that are breathtakingly beautiful. These days, the electric samovars are also being produced. The samovar cannot be imagined without its little friend, the glass holder. Since Russians are fond of very hot tea, the glass holder became an inseparable part of the Russian teapot. It saved the hands from getting burnt or scalded. These glass holders can range from inexpensive aluminum ones to those fashioned out of gold and encrusted with gemstones. For a tea loving community, the inimitable egg shaped teapot is really one of its kind. This teapot is the original Russian teapot used in tea ceremonies. Its body is round like an egg, with a long beautifully curved spout and a very strong handle. Russians usually drink 2-3 types of tea at one time. So, the teapots are placed one on top of the other, to be used simultaneously. This keeps the tea warm for a long time. The largest teapot containing hot water is placed at the bottom, next comes the teapot with black tea and finally the one on the top, which is also the smallest, holds herbal or mint tea. The entire edifice is very quirky, reminding one of, most probably, the Russian Orthodox Church, with its peculiar 'onion shaped roof'. Most of these idiosyncratic teapots are very individual, decorated with scenes of everyday life, animal motifs, stories from folklore or songs and little figures of people. Proverbs, sayings and landscapes sometimes make an appearance too. Our Russian tour of teapots will remain deficient without a talk about the exquisite Lomonosov porcelain teapots. If the samovar served the bourgeois, then the Russian Lomonosov, were for the cr'me de la cr'me. These teapots boast of the highest quality and each one is hand-painted in the choicest of patterns. The Lomonosov are specially noted for their tea sets decorated in gold and blue. And if you really want to feel the “the agony of leaves” then you should go for the Clear Glass teapot. It's a beautiful way of seeing and appreciating the brewing of tea while taking pleasure in the unfolding of myriad hues, as the tea gets done. This new-fangled expression explains the way in which tea leaves unfurl, while being prepared in hot water.

From vivacious teapots in nursery rhymes to toon teapots in cinema, from fairy tale to fables, from kitschy and artsy to neat and expensive, not to forget the kitchen and the drawing room, teapots are all over the place. David McFadden once said, “Outside of the chair, the teapot is the most ubiquitous and important design element in the domestic world and almost everyone who has tackled the world of design has ended up designing one”. The teapot is really a subliminal part of our lives. It greets us in the morning with the hot liquid alarm clock that pushes us into fourth gear, to rush through our hectic weekday. Come eventide and it permeates a sense of sanity, breathing tranquility into our tired beings, when we come home after a hard day's work. The teapot has always been associated with humane values such as humility, unconditional love, coziness, and dignity. All those enchanted years of childhood can never fail to recollect the saintly teapot in Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale “Theepotten”? The charming teapot with a broken lid that teaches us to be proud of what we are, because no matter what people will always talk about our defects. It instills in us the courage to accept our imperfections so that we can turn into better human beings. Hans Anderson, very subtly, humanizes the teapot when it philosophically speaks “The sugar bowl and the cream pitcher are permitted to be serving maids of delicacies, but I am the one who gives forth, the adviser. I spread blessings abroad among thirsty mankind. Inside of me the Chinese leaves give flavor to boiling, tasteless water”. Towards the end the teapot old and decrepit, is turned into a flower pot where it nourishes the flower bulb to life and fruition. Later it is broken and thrown. The teapot says ” hey threw me out into the yard, where I lie as an old potsherd. But I have my memory; that I can never lose!”, positing a holistic approach to life. And then again, there is the dear Mrs. Potts- the bewitched teapot in Disney's animated motion picture Beauty and the Beast. If you thought that the world of teapots is magical, how about a little scandal? Well, The Teapot Dome was the name given to a political scandal in the early part of 20th century in the US. The scandal centred around an oilfield's sale called Teapot Dome, which was named after a local teapot-like rock formation.

Our sojourn took us from mythical land of fairies to earth. Let's take a sneak peek into the glittering world of stars. All star gazers know that, the constellation of Sagittarius resembles a teapot! So the next time you come across a teapot, remember this Zen Haiku saying- “Strange how a teapot represents at the same time the comforts of solitude and the pleasures of company”. Here's to the eccentric teapot. Cheers!