Still Enjoying Tea at the Art Fair!

  • comfortable shoes?  √
  • sunscreen?  √
  • a lot of time?  √

Then you are ready for the Ann Arbor Art Fairs—because I guarantee you will (1) walk for hours, (2) see a staggering amount of amazing artwork, and (3) meet some incredibly creative artists who love what they do!

So, as a continuation of my last post (tap here to see), I bring you more tea-inspired artwork.



Valentine Studios, Jack Valentine (


Tree of Life Art Works, by Kim and Katherine McClelland (



River Turnings, by Cliff Lounsbury (



o happy clay! by Peggy Crago (


Eshelman Pottery, by Paul and Laurel Eshelman (



Nancy Gardner Ceramics (



Delores Fortuna (

Note: All photos used with permission of the artists. Feature photo of teapot, wood, by Cliff Lounsbury (River Turnings).

Enjoying Tea at the Art Fairs

Unbearably hot and humid + storm clouds looming = Ann Arbor Art Fairs week

Because—as we annually lament—Michigan weather always seems to be at its very worst for this annual event!

And the art fairs (four of them, running simultaneously) are not taken lightly here. One of the nation’s largest outdoor fairs, this four-day event features over a thousand artists and crowds of people.

Yesterday my daughters and I hunted out tea-inspired artwork. We had a great time, talking with amazing artists who are passionate about what they do, and seeing incredible art ranging from whimsical to elegant.

Enjoy this sampling!


Rebecca Lowery Ceramics (



Stephen Rich Nelson (


Highers Pottery Studio, Stan H. Baker (


Sheep Incognito by Conni Togel (

brownlee-2-web brownlee-1-web

Ed Brownlee, Ceramics


Dunnmorr Sudio, Robin Morris (


Little Wolf Ceramics, Valerie Walchek (

Note: All photos used with permission of the artists. Featured photo taken by Rebecca Lowery.

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.


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.

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:

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:

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!


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).

–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.


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).


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!

–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.

What Is a Samovar? With Tea, a Russian Tradition

samovar-webHallmarks of a Russian novel: (1) a maddening fluidity of names (I mean, really, how many nicknames does one person need?), and (2) the samovar.

Because when tea came into Russia, not only did the Russians embrace this new beverage, but they made it completely their own. Today, the samovar continues to evoke Russian culture and hearty, smoke-tinged tea, hauled thousands of miles by caravan.

But what exactly is this contraption, and why did the Russians end up using it?

After all, the Chinese were using stoneware teapots, and the Europeans were importing both stoneware and porcelain pots from China (see earlier post on early export ware from China).

In the first decades of trade, Chinese teaware did accompany the tea. But those caravans were traveling through Mongolia, where metal kettles were used, so in the 1770s the Russians used the Mongolian design to develop the samovar: sam (self) + varit (to boil), or self-boiler (Nordbye 2013). Or, according to another source, they derived the samovar from Tibetan hot pots (Delaine 2015).

Either way, they quickly caught on.

The Lisitsyn brothers—who lived in Tula, renown for its metalwork—made their first copper samovar in 1778. Less than a century later, Tula was producing 120,000 samovars annually (Master Russian), and by 1900, 630,000. Made of various metals (including copper, iron, brass, nickel, silver, even gold) or porcelain, samovars combined functionality and prestige.


So how does this really-scary-looking thing work?

Fuel (such as charcoal or wood chips) was stuffed into the pipe that runs through the middle of the samovar. As the fuel burned, it heated the water held in the urn-shaped portion of the samovar.

Meanwhile, tea concentrate, zavarka, was made in a small teapot, which was generally set atop the samovar so that it stayed warm.

To make a cup of tea, a small amount of concentrate was poured into a teacup and diluted with hot water from the samovar (hence the faucet, as seen in the drawing). Sometimes more than one concentrate was made, using different teas. The various concentrates were then combined in the cup and diluted with water.

And the tea itself?

The tea used for the concentrate must be a blend that was very strong yet didn’t become bitter when kept hot for long periods of time. Blends today are often made from black loose leaf tea from India and/or China, and often are slightly smoky, reminiscent of caravan campfires. (See my previous posts on when tea first arrived in Russia and about that first imported tea.)

Traditionally the tea was served black but the drinkers would hold a sugar cube in their teeth as they sipped their tea (Nordbye 2013). Tea nowadays may be sweetened with honey or jam as well.

Now if you don’t have a samovar at home, no worries. You can simply brew strong, hearty Russian Caravan or Russian Samovar loose leaf tea in your own cup or pot, perhaps adding a dab of your favorite jam. Ideally accompanied by your favorite Russian novel.

–Delaine, L. “Tea time in Russia,” Russian Life,, accessed October 2015.
–Master Russian. “Russian samovars,”, accessed July 2017.
–Nordbye, N. “The great Siberian tea road,” Russian Life May/June 2013.

Greet the Morning with Russian Breakfast Tea

russ-sam-leaves-webWhen Russia first imported tea from China—back in the late 1600s and early 1700s—the journey by caravan took over a year. (See previous post for more.)

So what kind of tea would taste good after 16 months of being hauled by a camel?

Well, for tea to survive the arduous journey, it had to be durable. There are stories of tea picking up a smoky taste from the campfires of the caravan, but the tea would have already been dried so that it would travel well. Early black loose leaf tea was probably dried over pine smoke in Fujian, as lapsang souchong is still today.

Russia imported both loose leaf and bricks of tea, although the bricks were more common at first. The bricks were durable and held their flavor—although about that flavor. . . .

According to Nordbye (2013), tea bricks were composed of:

both the better and coarser [tea] leaves, as well as twigs from the shrub (and often binding agents such as flour and manure)

Yep, just the flavor nuances I want in my tea.

Siberians also infused the tea bricks with mutton fat and salt (Nordbye 2013), perhaps because they needed the extra nutrition in their harsh environment (similar to the practice of adding high-fat-content yak butter to tea in the Himalayas). That at least is a bit more palatable.

Anyway, the blend of tea and binding agents were pressed into molds and dried, yielding a brick that weighed about 22 pounds. These bricks were then cut into smaller chunks and “were tightly sewn up in animal hides” before being transported by camel (Nordbye 2013).

Tea was valuable, and the bricks were used as money, even as recently as a hundred years ago in Siberia. By the late 1700s, nearly three million pounds of tea made their way into Russia each year. And by then, tea prices had fallen enough so that the lower-quality bricks were accessible to those lower on the economic spectrum while the upper echelon was sipping the higher-quality loose leaf tea.

Today Russian tea blends continue to have a smoky note. The Russian Samovar shown here is a blend of Ceylon, Chinese, and Indian teas, yielding a robust brew that has a slightly smoky, spicy flavor. (And absolutely no binding agents, palatable or otherwise!)

But you undoubtedly noticed that the “Russian Samovar” tea was not brewed in a samovar. More about the samovar up next!


Source: Nordbye, N. “The great Siberian tea road,” Russian Life May/June 2013.
Note:  Russian Samovar tea shown here is available at

The Dawn of Russian Breakfast Tea

russian-webBesides those intrepid tea drinkers in Scotland, England, and Ireland who have honed breakfast tea customs, there are the Russians. Tea drinkers for centuries, they have their own version of the morning (and afternoon and mid-afternoon and evening) tea. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky put it:

I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.

Russia awakens to tea—

Tea was first introduced to the country in the early 1600s but the story goes that the tsar—never having had tea before—attempted to chew it rather than brew it.

In the mid-1600s, Tsar Aleksey Mikhaylovich was given tea medicinally, obviously with better results because traders were soon working to get more of it.

—and avidly imports a lot of it

Once the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk clearly identified the boundary between Russia and China, trade caravans were able to more safely travel between the two empires—and tea was a hot item!

Trade, however, continued to be challenging.

First a road was needed . . . through forest, swamp and bog, permafrost, mountain. Serfs and convicts were recruited (because, clearly, no one would actually volunteer for this!), but it took almost a century to fully construct the Great Siberian Trakt, which ran from Moscow to Kalgan in northern China.

The Treaty of Kyakhta in 1728 established primary trading centers in both Russia and China, so Kyakhta was built on the Mongolia-Russia border. This remote city handsomely profited from the lucrative trade—and was eventually dubbed the “Sandy Venice.”

By the mid-1800s, almost two-thirds of the imported tea came through Kyakhta. And we are talking a lot of tea:

as many as 5,000 cases of tea were unloaded daily, eventually accounting for up to 90 percent of all goods imported into Siberia (Nordbye 2013).

In China, the “Tea Road” between Kyakhta and the tea plantations in Fujian’s Wuyi Mountains ran over 3,000 miles; the journey took months.

And altogether, it took around sixteen months to travel the 11,000 miles from Fujian—through mountain ranges and across the Gobi desert—to Moscow. Until the late 1700s, tea was (understandably) a luxury for only the wealthy and royal.

At its height, the largest China–Mongolia trade company, Dashengkui, employed 7,000 and had 20,000 camels. With each camel carrying 400–600 pounds, that’s roughly 8,000,000–12,000,000 pounds of tea!

On the Amur River, Russia, by William Henry Jackson, 1895

The road to nowhere

When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, however, traders began loading tea on ships rather than camels. Transporting by sea cost them only one-tenth of caravan transport!

Then in 1904, the Trans-Siberian Railroad pretty much ended the era of caravan—the journey by rail took a bit more than one week. . . .

In 1907, although Luigi Barzina (Nordbye 2013) wrote that all of Kyakhta’s riches “have dried up,” and the Great Siberian Tea Road had served its purpose, Russians were still wholeheartedly embracing tea and had made breakfast tea their own.

Coming next, a look at what teas the Russians were drinking

(See earlier posts on English Breakfast Tea and Irish Breakfast Tea)

–Xinhua News Agency. “Ballad sheds light on historical tea trade,” China Economic Information Service, April 8, 2015.
–Delaine, L. “Tea time in Russia,” Russian Life,, accessed October 2015.
–Nordbye, N. “The great Siberian tea road,” Russian Life May/June 2013.
Note:  Russian Samovar tea shown here is available at