By Tim Clark (SEACS Councillor)
I have built up a large collection of old English teapots in England. And I thought I knew about the subject. But when I came out East I realized that my knowledge was incomplete without studying oriental ceramics and acknowledging the influence it had on European design.
Soon after arriving in Hong Kong I discovered and fell in love with Yixing teapots. I spent many hours in the Flagstaff House Museum, which has the finest collection of Yixing teapots in the world. I befriended the curator who allowed me to handle some precious exhibits. And I scoured the antique shops of Hong Kong and Macau in search of prized possessions. The late 19th century example to the left is one of my favourites.
It is an exquisite marriage of form and function with powerful symbolism built in. The peach, of course, represents longevity. How appropriate for the promotion of the health-giving properties of tea drinking. The fruit bat adds another auspicious symbol. The word for ‘bat’ in Chinese is a homophone for the word meaning ‘good fortune’. It suggests joy. And my teapot has three bats. Three cheers.
Yixing is a town about 150 km west of Shanghai. It has been a major producer of teapots since the Ming Dynasty. The area around Yixing is endowed with clays of various colours, the most renowned of which are the purple, deep red and yellow. These clays have special qualities due to their mineral content which is too technical to touch on here but suffice to say the result, when refined and baked to 1200 degrees, is stoneware revered by Chinese tea-drinking scholars as the finest pots for brewing tea. The high metal content means that they can be burnished to shine like bronze, and this was particularly favoured by the Thai market.
The first teapots to arrive in Europe were almost certainly from Yixing. They would have been extremely expensive so local potters were quick to work on reproducing them. Reddish clay was common enough but it was the Dutch who learned how to refine it and bake it sufficiently to emulate the Chinese originals. And it was two Dutch brothers called Elers who arrived in Staffordshire and attempted to capture the English market making use of the local red clay found there. If you visit the V&A in London you will see an example of an Elers teapot made in 1690 alongside one made in Yixing earlier in the same century. It is hard to tell them apart. But one technical difference, which is worth noting, is that the English teapot (right) was slip moulded whereas the Chinese one (left) was press moulded. This is a technique that the Chinese were yet to learn from the Europeans. Indeed, once the Europeans had cracked the secret of making porcelain a century later, they began to take the lead in ceramic innovation.
However, to this day, no one can make teapots like the potters of Yixing. The unique quality of their clay and an enduring tradition of creativity and craftsmanship, has remained unchallenged. And it remains fresh and alive today.
That’s why collectors of Yixing don’t just buy from antique shops. As a mark of pride in their workmanship, Yixing potters have almost always signed their work. And the pots of contemporary craftsmen are just as collectible as those of centuries past. Now, although I can’t read Chinese characters, and therefore cannot identify a particular potter’s work, anyone with experience can recognize craftsmanship when they see it. But you need to handle a pot to appreciate it. For example, check how perfectly the lid fits. A craftsman’s lid will fit as tightly as the piston in a Rolls-Royce engine.
If you wish to buy an antique Yixing teapot, beware of those that fake their age. Stick your nose inside and if it smells of soot or oil, avoid it. Genuine age leaves a patina, which ishard to fake. Experience tells.
The inspiration for the design of Yixing teapots sprang initially from nature. The earliest designs were inspired by flowers, trees and fruits. The V&A examples above display the plum blossom motive celebrating a flower that blooms in winter. And later potters experimented with geometric designs.
They never lost their quest for artistic originality. And they never changed their production technique. These pots are not thrown on a wheel. They are assembled by hand from slabs of clay rolled out like pastry and press moulded or simply cut into shapes and married together. You can watch an Yixing potter at work on Youtube. I saw one at an exhibition in Hong Kong. It was fascinating and made me want to travel to Yixing and see more. Maybe we can arrange a SEACS trip. Now there’s a thought.
When it comes to variety in teapot design, Britain rules the world. Designs range from the sublime to the fantastical to the down-right ridiculous. But there’s no such thing as an original artist. Picasso said that bad artists copy and good artists steal. And it seems clear to me that the potters of England stole inspiration from the potters of Yixing. Take the examples from my English collection above.
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More on Yixing teapots from Eng-Lee Seok Chee’s essay “Passions and Pursuits of the Chinese Scholar” in Ceramics in Scholarly Taste (Singapore: Southeast Asian Ceramic Society & Sun Tree Publishing, 1993):
“The life of simplicity to which many literati aspired also drew them to the rustic stonewares made in Yixing. Hand-modelled from clays possessing an astonishing rage of earth colours, these unglazed teapots, brushpots and brushwashers were apt to mimic the form and texture of objects from the kitchen garden like bamboo shoots or cucumbers, or masquerade as gnarled tree trunks and worm-eaten leaves. Such whimsical visual puns, somewhat analogous to the punning couplets which they themselves enjoyed composing, must certainly have appealed to the scholar’s sense of humour and wit.” (p. 28)
“Through all his pursuits, it is clear that the Chinese scholar was intent on refining and honing his sensibilities. Accessories which contributed to these pursuits were chosen with infinite care, whether they comprised a dish for a miniature landscape, a holder for his brushes, or a small pot to brew his tea, for which Yixing clay was considered mandatory. According to Yixing lore, the first designer of artistic teapots to the scholar’s taste was a Chan monk, about whom little is known except that he modelled his pots out of a single lump of clay and marked his creations with a simple but unmistakable fingerprint.” (p. 38)