Reopened in 2020 to great acclaim, the renovated British Galleries at The Met display an array of notable, beautiful, and intriguing masterworks dating from the early 16th century through the end of 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 numerous angles. These charming tea wares illustrate Britain’s innovative industrial history—with a touch of wit and whimsy.
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, spurring Europe’s wealthy 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 elite.
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.
As tea’s popularity in Britain grew, new wares and rituals emerged for storing, brewing, sharing, and drinking it, stimulating a vogue for imported Chinese porcelain. In response to this demand for expensive foreign goods, British factories developed their own tea wares—such as the decorative tea caddy shown at top, and the teapots shown below—with local production in Staffordshire, Worcester, and other major manufacturing centers.
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 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.
“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.