Tea caddy (part of a set). British, South Staffordshire. White enamel on copper painted in polychrome enamels, ca. 1770. Gift of Irwin Untermyer, 1964 64.101.837a, b
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Steeped in History: British Tea Wares

The Met’s renovated British Galleries showcase the Museum’s delightful decorative objects designed for tea

The newly refurbished British Galleries at The Met present a host of notable, beautiful, and intriguing masterworks dating to the early 16th through the 19th century. The Museum’s guide to the installation notes, “Tucked away in each teapot, tapestry, and table is a richer story than you might imagine. Taken together, they remind us that design is never just about what we see—it’s also about people, politics, and power.”

As a distinctive focal point in the reconfigured galleries, a 12-foot-tall glass vitrine holds 100 teapots of various sizes, shapes, colors, and motifs, which can be admired from multiple angles. These charming tea wares illustrate Britain’s innovative industrial history—with a touch of wit and whimsy.

Distinctive tea wares on view in the British Galleries at The Met

 

Britain’s long love affair with tea began more than 300 years ago. In the early 17th century, the first bales of tea arrived in the West on the ships of the Dutch East India Company, leading Europe’s elite citizens to sample the exotic (and costly) new beverage. King Charles II’s young Portuguese wife, Catherine of Braganza, popularized the leafy brew in Britain by introducing it at the royal court, where the notion of teatime became established among the cognescenti.

Catherine of Braganza. William Faithorne the Elder (British, ca. 1616–1691). After Dirck Stoop (Dutch, 1610/18–1681/86). Sitter: Queen Catherine of Braganza (Portuguese, 1638–1705, reign 1662–1685). Engraving, second state of three; 13 1/8 × 9 5/16 in.; 1662. Rogers Fund, 1922   22.42.3

 

By the early 18th century, the British East India Company had become the world’s dominant shipping company, holding a monopoly over the China tea trade. The firm further consolidated its power by growing and exporting tea from India. Between 1780 and 1810, imported tea from the East became less expensive, and its consumption increased among Britain’s upper and middle classes.

The Strong Family (detail). Charles Philips (British, 1703–1747). Oil on canvas, 29 5/8 x 37 in., 1732. Gift of Robert Lehman, 1944   44.159

 

As tea’s popularity in Britain grew, new wares and rituals emerged for storing, brewing, sharing, and drinking it, spurring a vogue for imported Chinese porcelain. In response to this demand for foreign goods, British factories developed their own wares—such as the decorative tea caddy shown at top, and the teapots shown below—with local production clustering in Staffordshire, Worcester, and other major manufacturing centers.

UPPER LEFT: Teapot. Made in Staffordshire, England. British (American market). Stoneware, ca. 1765. Gift of Mrs. Russell S. Carter, 1944   44.110.13a, b UPPER RIGHT: Teapot in the form of a pineapple. Style of Whieldon type. Probably British, Staffordshire. Lead-glazed earthenware, ca. 1750–70. Rogers Fund, 1914   14.68.6a, b BOTTOM LEFT: Footed teapot. British, Staffordshire. Salt-glazed stoneware with enamel decoration, ca. 1760. Gift of Carleton Macy, 1934   34.165.139a, b BOTTOM RIGHT: Teapot. British, Staffordshire. Salt-glazed stoneware with enamel decoration, ca. 1765. Gift of Carleton Macy, 1934   34.165.138a, b

 

In honor of this illustrious history, our home products feature a colorful teapot pattern (seen on the kitchen set, below), all based on actual teapots in the new British Galleries at The Met. Some teapots imitate Chinese ceramics, others are shaped like houses or animals, while still others reach vivid flights of fancy, patterned with imaginary foliage or exotic scenes.

British Teapots Apron, Oven Mitt, and Pot Holder Set, $50

“Thank God for tea!” wrote the British clergyman and essayist Reverend Sydney Smith (1771–1845). We heartily agree. Shop these and other tea-centric designs at The Met Store.

 

 

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