Loose Leaf Tea in an Art Museum Exhibit

Loose leaf tea in an art museum? Unexpected perhaps, but tea—along with its ware and ceremony—has been integral to Western culture for hundreds of years and to Asian culture for thousands!

Currently, TeaHaus loose leaf tea is part of an ongoing exhibit, Elegance from the East: New Insights into Old Porcelain, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, providing visitors the opportunity to  see and smell teas that are similar to what 17th-century Europeans would have been drinking.

Here, curator and scholar Shirley M. Mueller pulls together seemingly disparate strands—the porcelain trade, the neuroscience of collecting beautiful items, miscommunications between cultures, art, and tea—into a compelling narrative!

Enjoy!

(Video provided by Shirley M. Mueller)


Teas shown in video are available at teahaus.com.

For more on Shirley’s exhibit, see my previous blogs:
Tea, Porcelain, and Our Brains—yes, there IS a connection here!
Women and Tea: Making It Their Own
Miscommunication and Mistakes, Fired into 18th-century Teapots and Plates
How Old Is That Teapot? Using Art to Date and Interpret Art  
A 1644 Shipwreck and Its Teapots
“Modern” Teapots in a 1700s’ Shipwreck    
The Valuable Tea Protected the Porcelain after This Ship Sank in 1752

The Valuable Tea Protected the Porcelain after This Ship Sank in 1752

If you were living in the 1700s and had to transport porcelain pieces by ship—without bubble wrap or cardboard boxes or styrofoam peanuts—you had to figure out a way to pack in as much as you could and minimize breakage.

Stackable Solution

The Dutch East India Company found the answer partly in “couple ware,” inexpensive porcelain pieces that easily stacked (yeah, not what comes to my mind either when I read “couple ware”).

A 1726 record book noted that because dinner plates, bowls, and tea sets didn’t bring in much money for the company,

it was better to buy plates, tea cups and saucers [from China] . . . as these are most in demand in Europe and sell for the best price (Maldini 2012).

stack-plates-webAt this time, tea and coffee cups did not have handles and therefore could be conveniently stacked.

(In case you’re wondering: handles became “fashionable only after 1760, when the developing European industries and consumption culture started to push Chinese industry in search of differentiation” [Maldini 2012].)

stack-cups-webSo when the Dutch ship Geldermalsen was loaded in Canton in late 1751, its cargo had more tea cups and saucers than any other type of porcelain (Habermehl 2017). In fact, it carried 63,623 tea cups and saucers!

A mere 19,535 coffee cups and saucers came in second, and there were only 578 teapots. We know this because shipping invoices were exact, and several copies were usually made.

Serving a Supporting Role to the TEA

Porcelain served as ballast on ships. The tea was stored on top of the porcelain, with the higher-end teas being transported in lead-lined crates.

And even though the Geldermalsen carried 147 pieces of gold as well, the tea was actually the most valuable part of the cargo—it would bring in the most profit. And this shipment was all about making money.

Which Ended Up Helping to Protect the Porcelain

Unfortunately for the East India Co., the Geldermalsen hit a reef and went down in 1752, killing 80 of its 112 crew members. The prized tea ended up serving as a protective layer over the rest of the cargo.

When Michael Hatcher discovered the wreck in 1986, he had to go through a lot of tea to recover the porcelain! He eventually brought up more than 150,000 pieces, including this teapot currently on display in Shirley Mueller’s exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Underglaze blue and white porcelain teapot, from Geldermalsen cargo. China, 1752. (Reproduced with permission from S. M. Mueller.)
Underglaze blue and white porcelain teapot, part of the Geldermalsen cargo. China, ca. 1752. (Reproduced with permission from S. M. Mueller.)

Although this teapot was underwater for over two hundred years, its glaze remains intact and shiny, which means that it had been protected from the saltwater. Its look is still Asian, and like the teapot from the Ca Mau wreck (see previous post), it has a straight spout, a similar finial, and a perforation to vent steam in the lid.

Its flat lid, however, differs from the domed lid of the Ca Mau pot and from the flat lid of the earlier Hatcher teapot (see earlier post on Hatcher shipwreck). Both those lids sit on top of the teapot opening, whereas this lid fits into the teapot, flush with the teapot itself. All three teapots, however, are underglaze blue and white porcelain. lids-web

Shipwrecks are snapshots, confirming what goods were being produced and transported at a specific time in history—and giving us an amazing opportunity to compare teapots that spent hundreds of years on the ocean floor, still intact, still lovely, and still waiting to brew that tea.


Sources:
–Habermehl, N. “Porcelain and gold bullion from Asia,” Shipwrecks and Lost Treasures of the Seven Seas, accessed July 2017.
–Maldini, I. “Design history of European tea cups and saucers,” VU University Amsterdam. 2012.
–Mueller, S. M. Elegance from the East: New Insights from Old Porcelain, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana. May 26–October 22, 2017. Tap here for more information about the exhibit, which is ongoing.

“Modern” Teapots in a 1700s’ Shipwreck

In early 1700s, an overloaded Chinese junk caught fire and sank. Like the ship lost in 1644 (see previous post), this was really bad news for exporter and importer alike!

The vessel had picked up its cargo from the porcelain factories of Canton and was en route to Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies. Europeans were clamoring for tea along with pretty much anything porcelain.

In this shipwreck—called the Ca Mau (in reference to where it sank off Vietnam)—we are given an incredible look into how the Chinese were answering that demand.

Asian teapots

Most of the teapots found on the Ca Mau were still Asian in shape and decoration, as seen in the spherical teapot below.

Having spent several hundred years in the sea, this pot’s glaze is a bit dull—and it retains only its blue decoration, which is beneath the glaze. (This is why this porcelain is called “underglaze blue and white”—the blue and white were painted on the pot, and then the pot was glazed.)

Originally, however, this pot was much more colorful. Additional decoration had been painted on top of the glaze. The salt water, however, eroded away that paint, while the glaze protected the blue that was underneath. When the light hits the pot just right, you can still see the ghosting of the delicate decoration.

Underglaze blue and white porcelain teapot, originally with Imari decoration, from Ca Mau cargo. China, 1723. (Reproduced with permission from S. M. Mueller.)
Underglaze blue and white porcelain teapot, originally with Imari decoration, part of the Ca Mau cargo. China, 1723. (Reproduced with permission from S. M. Mueller.)

Morphing into European design

The Ca Mau—which sank sometime between 1723 and 1735—also vividly illustrates the evolution of western-style teapots. Even though the pots seem thoroughly Asian when you look at them superficially, their designs were changing to satisfy European use.

  • the base of the spout now contains a web or strainer holes to hold back tea leaves so that they don’t clog in the spout (remember, at this time they were drinking whole leaf tea, so the leaves unfurled as they brewed)
  • the lid now has a small perforation to release steam so that the hot water doesn’t bubble up into the spout
steam vent in teapot lid
Steam vent in teapot lid. (Reproduced with permission from S. M. Mueller.)

With everyone scrambling to get on the same page. . . .

In fact, by 1735, the strainer and steam vent are standard features. What the Ca Mau shows us, however, is that at the time that this ship sank, the Chinese were exporting teapots with and without these features,

indicating that tea vessels at this moment were on the cusp of modernization . . . [with] their variety confirm[ing] the challenge that the Chinese and the Europeans faced in their attempts to produce entirely functional and attractive tea-serving vessels for the West (Mueller 2009:6).

This variety of pots also strongly suggests that the ship had been loaded with porcelain that had been made at multiple factories. The artisans at each factory did their best to fulfill orders, which came from Europe and went through Chinese agents and included “drawings, prints, actual models, and linguistic interpreters” (Mueller 2009:8).

With so many entities involved—coupled with the problems of communication and economics at a time when travel between east and west took years!—it seems obvious that innovations would take awhile to become standard.

But in this shipwreck, we find evidence for that supposition. And in a tragic loss of people along with cargo and ship, a modicum of compensation.

Next up, tea and porcelain at the bottom of the sea.


Sources:
–Mueller, S. M. Elegance from the East: New Insights from Old Porcelain, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana. May 26–October 22, 2017. Tap here for more information about the exhibit, which is ongoing.
–Mueller, S. M. “Revelations of the Ca Mau shipwreck: Chinese export porcelain teapots on the cusp,” American Ceramic Journal, vol. XV. 2009.

A 1644 Shipwreck and Its Teapots

Sometime around 1644, bad news reached Chinese exporters and Dutch importers. A Chinese junk—laden with porcelain—was lost in the South China Sea.

This was a huge loss! In these early years of porcelain trade between East and West, fine porcelain was costly, turnaround time was measured in years, and demand in the West was growing.

From the cargo, it appears this ship was headed to Batavia, the capital city of the Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta, Indonesia), with some items intended for the Southeast Asia market and others for Europe. Michael Hatcher discovered and excavated this wreck in the 1980s, unfortunately, sans archaeologist. Still, the 23,000 pieces of porcelain recovered give us a historical snapshot!

Underglaze blue and white porcelain jar, from Hatcher cargo. China, 1643. (Reproduced with permission from S. M. Mueller.)
Underglaze blue and white porcelain jar, part of the Hatcher cargo. China, 1643. (Reproduced with permission from S. M. Mueller.)

Excavating shipwrecks helps us put things into perspective, into context, into a specific time period. The recovered porcelain jar shown above is very similar to the one depicted in the Willem Kalf painting (1669) of my last post (tap here to see)—which means that that particular jar could have been produced earlier than 1669.

Further, because we know that Kalf’s painting shows luxury items, we know that this jar was expected to bring in a decent profit—further verification (as if any were needed!) that neither Dutch nor Chinese were happy to hear about the loss of this cargo!

The porcelain teapot below was also recovered from the wreck, and allows us to see exactly what China was producing for the European market at this time. This pot is still Asian in feel, unlike later exports that answered Europe’s call for different design features and decoration.

Underglaze blue and white porcelain teapot, from Hatcher cargo. China, 1643. (Reproduced with permission from S. M. Mueller.)
Underglaze blue and white porcelain teapot, part of the Hatcher cargo. China, 1643. (Reproduced with permission from S. M. Mueller.)

The flat lid of this pot, like that of another teapot recovered from the ship,* has a notched finial, as shown here:

hatcher-teapot-notched-finial-web  hatcher-teapot-notched-finial-(tall-teapot)-web

Although all the teapots recovered had finials similar to these, there were twelve new teapot shapes found in this cargo.

If we consider that an earlier—1613—shipwreck did not have any pots that seem to be teapots, it seems that teapots were not being imported by the Dutch until sometime after 1613; T. Volker believes that the Dutch began importing teaware around 1624 (Mueller 2005). So within only two decades, the Dutch went from importing no teapots to importing multiple teapot designs!

Tea was rapidly catching on. In 1637, Dutch East India Co. directors wrote to Batavia personnel, saying that they expected Chinese and Japanese tea as part of every cargo (Mueller 2005)!

As you would expect, shipwrecks dating to the early and mid-1700s illustrate further teapot innovation as well as the incredible demand for tea—coming next.


Sources:
–Mueller, S. M. “17th century Chinese export teapots: imagination and diversity,” Orientations 36(7). 2005.
–Mueller, S. M. Elegance from the East: New Insights from Old Porcelain, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana. May 26–October 22, 2017. Tap here for more information about the exhibit, which is ongoing.
*Photo from exhibit by S. M. Mueller, S. M. and R. C. Miller. The Luxury of Tea and Coffee: Chinese Export Porcelain, Highlights from the Shirley M. Mueller Collection, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana, 2016.

How Old Is That Teapot? Using Art to Date and Interpret Art

When I look at these teapots, I see beauty, whimsy, creativity.

What I cannot see, however, is when they were made.

And their vastly different interpretations of teapot form don’t help. We can assume they were all made by twenty-first-century artists (correctly in this case), but assumptions are not entirely reliable.

So, too, with those first teapots that were brought from China into Europe. The Chinese were still experimenting, trying to interpret just what it was that the Europeans wanted in a teapot. Further, only the wealthy could afford these luxury items, so there was no need to standardize them for mass production yet.

With myriad teapot designs as a result, researchers have needed to use a multi-prong approach to determine when these early teapots were made, and also to trace how designs evolved. Technique, glaze, colors, design, decoration, size, et cetera are the expected ways to tackle such studies.

But there are some other—perhaps more fun—tactics, something I hadn’t really thought much about until meeting up with Shirley Mueller, who studies early export porcelain and who pointed out several such instances.

One piece of art can be dated by using another piece of art—especially when we know when that second artwork was created. And museums are filled with these cross references!

Take, for example, this painting by Dutch master Willem Kalf.

kalf-painting-web

  • Because we know when Kalf lived and the year that he painted this still life, we know that this porcelain jar was made before he painted it (that is, before 1669).
  • Further, we know that at this time period, Kalf was meeting “the demands of the well-to-do Dutch merchant class” by depicting luxury items such as the costly and imported items here (Bauer and Prater 1006).

This painting, then, places the Chinese porcelain piece into at least an approximate time period and into context. In the 1600s, porcelain, including teapots—along with tea—was available only to the upper classes.

Another interesting method of dating objects uses shipwrecks. And who doesn’t find a shipwreck totally intriguing? More on that coming soon!


Notes: (1) Teapot photos used with permission of the artists; these teapots were at the 2017 Ann Arbor Art Fair, and with the exception of Ed Brownlee, the artists can be contacted through their websites, as given in the photo captions. (2) Image of Kalf painting courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, in the pubic domain; painting currently at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Sources:
–Bauer, H. and A. Prater. Baroque, Taschen, Los Angeles, 2006.
–Mueller, S. M. Elegance from the East: New Insights from Old Porcelain, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana. May 26–October 22, 2017. Tap here for more information about the exhibit, which is ongoing.
–Mueller, S. M. Personal communication, June 2017.

Miscommunication and Mistakes, Fired into 18th-century Teapots and Plates

Well, it’s really no use our talking in the way we have been doing if the words we use mean something different to each of us . . . and nothing. (M. Bradbury, Eating People Is Wrong)

True today, true yesterday—and true back in the 1700s when people were ordering tea and teaware. Because back then, Westerners were crazy about tea and all the porcelain paraphernalia that went along with it.

But it wasn’t enough to just have Chinese ware—they wanted it personalized, westernized, customized.

So they sent in their orders to China, complete with detailed instructions. Seems totally straightforward, even if these orders went via ship, taking months.

The problem?

Well, there was that whole language barrier thing, along with vastly different cultural norms.

The result?

Quite a few misunderstandings, documented by extant porcelain pieces. Which means we can not only get a smile out of some of this, but we can trace the evolution of design as China strived to produce what the Westerners wanted.


Why this was serious business—

I recently met up again with researcher Shirley Mueller, who studies the various ways in which China responded to 18th-century Western tastes and demands for porcelain, and who showed me some fascinating examples of mistakes that were made.

And while these seem quaint or innocuous or amusing to us now, they were anything but.

It took time, work, and money to order, create, and transport porcelain—and errors and breakage meant wasted months, unhappy customers, less profit.

Therefore—

Drawings and written directions stipulating dimensions and the type of decoration were sent to China’s porcelain factories.

However, the Chinese artisans were not familiar with Western coats of arms or religious symbols, for example. And when text appeared on the drawings, they didn’t necessarily know whether those words were simply decoration, or lines of poetry, or directions.

Dobree-arms-crop-web
Collection of Shirley M. Mueller, Indianapolis/NYC

The results?

Take this detail of a plate, made around 1755, that depicts the English arms of Dobree. The words “red” and “green” were mistaken as decoration rather than used as directions. Even worse, the wrong colors were applied!

Yeah, the recipient probably wasn’t so amused.

Sometimes the text was supposed to appear, but was mistakenly written, such as an “N” written backwards in the word “INRI” (an acronym for a Latin religious phrase).

Shirley Mueller also showed me one example where the reference drawing got wet and smudged somewhere en route. The artisans incorporated the stains into the final pattern, not realizing they weren’t supposed to be there.

The concept of coats of arms and crests was unfamiliar. While the crest is to appear above the coat of arms and right side up, there are instances where the crest is upside down and below the coat of arms.

In heraldic engravings, blue would be represented in the reference drawing by parallel lines. Well here’s what happened in one tea set:

troutbeck-teapot_detail-web
Collection of Shirley M. Mueller, Indianapolis/NYC

The lines have been faithfully reproduced but, unfortunately, the field was rendered in red rather than blue!

The famille rose teapot bearing the Arms of Troutbeck in the wrong color was made in 1775. Due to the long voyage time, it wasn’t until 1780 that the replacement was made, as shown here, with the correct blue:

troutbeck-plate_detail-web
Collection of Shirley M. Mueller, Indianapolis/NYC

Now when I first looked at these two items, before Shirley explained the problem, I had no idea which one was wrong or why it was wrong (outside the very troubling iconography above the shield but that’s another story). And neither did the Chinese artisans!

plate-and-teapot-montage-with-caption-web

And therein was the problem.

Words and drawings, instructions and guidelines. Yet what they mean depends entirely upon your perspective.


All photos used with permission from Shirley M. Mueller—and if you are anywhere near Indianapolis this summer, be sure to check out her lovely porcelain exhibit at the Museum of Art (details below).


Sources:
–Maldini, I. “Design history of European tea cups and saucers,” VU University Amsterdam, 2012.
–Mueller, S. M. Elegance from the East: New Insights from Old Porcelain, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana. May 26–October 22, 2017. Tap here for more information about the exhibit, which is ongoing.
–Mueller, S. M. Personal communication, June 2017.

Women and Tea: Making It Their Own

Back in 1982, as a woman, I had to enter the building of the private club through the back door. But times change and women were finally welcomed as club members in the mid-1980s.

But did that mean much by that time? Were the stakes of membership as high? When the Detroit Athletic Club opened its doors in 1915, its (male!) members controlled 90% of the world’s auto production (Walsh 2015)—a powerful club to be sure.

Exclusion and power are definitely nothing new

In the mid-1600s, when the Dutch and English were discovering those new beverages—coffee, chocolate, and tea—they opened up coffee houses.

For men. Because coffee houses were the “spaces of masculine business and debates” (Maldini 2012).

Tea was available at these coffee houses, but women would not frequent these places.

But the disenfranchised will find a way

tea-cups-webHowever, as tea became more available in the 1700s, women claimed this new commodity for their own, spreading the habit of having tea by serving it in their own homes.

And the custom of having tea quickly caught on, functioning as:

  • “an excuse to socialize” (Maldini 2012)
  • “a social lubricant” (Mueller 2005)
  • “an increasingly cheap way to receive people” (Maldini 2012)
  • a substitute for alcohol
  • a healthy beverage

And, no less importantly perhaps, as

a way for mothers to introduce their daughters to eligible bachelors (Mueller 2017)!

“Having tea” was not just an idle luxury. Women used it to wield power within their own spheres.

Spurring the import business

The subsequent demand for tea—along with the need for teapots and other teaware—was quickly met.

In 1717–1718, tea comprised 85% of the Honorable East India Company’s imports from China (Mueller 2005), and already by 1712, china ware comprised 20% of the Dutch East India Company’s cargo (Maldini 2012).

Europeans loved porcelain (see my earlier post), and we can trace the evolution of Chinese into Western motifs as they wanted their ware to increasingly reflect their own culture.

1720-teapot-with-text-web

This pleasing 1720 teapot and teacup from China (above) has characteristic underglaze blue, along with famille verte (“green family”), which is enamel decoration that is applied on top of the glaze. Although famille verte may have red, yellow, blue, and black colors, its name derives from its greens.

The 1724 teapot below holds less than 15 ounces; in ensuing years, as tea prices fell, teapot sizes would increase. Like the teapot above, this pot’s spherical shape, straight spout, and looped handle are Chinese—and practical—in design (Mueller 2005).

However, this is an armorial teapot, meaning that it is decorated with a Western coat of arms (in this case, English).

1724-teapot-with-text-web

Teapot design would continue to change as the Western world fully embraced  tea and teaware from China.

And as with any communication between cultures/languages/peoples, misunderstandings occurred. More on that coming up!


Sources:
–Maldini, I. “Design history of European tea cups and saucers,” VU University Amsterdam, 2012.
–Mueller, S. M. “Eighteenth-century Chinese export porcelain teapots: fashion and uniformity,” American Ceramic Circle Journal Vol. XIII, 2005.
–Mueller, S. M. Elegance from the East: New Insights from Old Porcelain, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana. May 26–October 22, 2017. Tap here for more information about the exhibit, which is ongoing.
–Walsh, D. “Detroit Athletic Club reaches 100, marks it with sculptures,” Crain’s Detroit Business, April 16, 2015.