Novelty teapots

I am not a big tea fan. Though I recall once serving tea and tangerines to my dolls, tea, in our house, was strictly medicinal. It was reserved for dosing sore throats and barking coughs.

Moroccan friends, however, introduced me to a different world of tea.

Imagine a small room, wintry but for small kerosene stove glowing red in the corner. Atop sits a tiny, dented aluminum teapot, its contents, a handful of tea leaves, a bunch of greeny mint, ample sugar, and a bit of water, simmering merrily. My hostess pours a smidgen into a glass, topping it up with boiling water. Then raising it head-high, she deftly pours its contents down into a second glass on the table below. Again and again she pours the golden stream through the air from glass to glass. Then she hands me my tea. Voila. The minty liquid has become cool enough to drink. Ah, the fragrance, the elegance.

Though tea purists may fault this ceremony for its simplicity, collectors may covet that dented teapot for its patina, its past.

Teapots, like tea, boast a long and venerable history. The Chinese initially boiled tea leaves in open pans, then learned to steep tea and serve it in heat-retaining white porcelain pots. When traders introduced tea to 17th century Europe, it was first served in coffee houses – in these imported “chinaware” spouted pots and tiny bowls.

Dutch and English potters, recognizing golden economic opportunity, were desperate to duplicate Chinese porcelain’s alluring combination of fragility, strength, and smooth, translucent beauty. After years of intense experimentation, Johann Bottger, a pharmacist-alchemist from Meissen, Germany, succeeded, discovering “white gold.” His formula for hard paste, heat-resistant porcelain not only matched that of white chinaware, but actually surpassed it. Bottger’s china could be lavishly painted and gilded. Soon hundreds of potteries, among them Meissen, Minton, and Spode, dotted Europe, and were turning out elegant teapots swirled with florals, gilt trimmings, and fashionable chinoiserie themes. Thus Europe’s love of tea heralded the Age of Porcelain.

By the early 1800s, fashionable British circles were enjoying private afternoon “teas,” social get-togethers that bridged luncheon and dinner with light savories, pastries, and pleasantries. English working classes, too, adopted the tea habit, flocking to pleasure gardens, where, after a spot of dancing or other popular entertainment, they relaxed over steaming cuppas. British teashops, forerunners of women’s emancipation, were also very popular. Inside, women, even unchaperoned ones, could linger over small talk, yeast cakes, and steaming pots of tea.

Classic teapots, globular or pear-shaped, have always remained popular among tea drinkers. But during the 18th century, developing pottery techniques and wide-open markets inspired craftsmen to create novelty pieces as well. Staffordshire potters like Wedgewood and Whieldon, for example, introduced innovative teapots resembling lifelike cauliflowers and pineapples.

During the Victorian Era, whimsical animal and popular British literary character teapots were all the rage. So were majolica teapots, which Minton, their creator had named for Italian Renaissance tin-glazed earthenware. Both the British and American middle classes adored majolica teapots’ raised flora and fauna images heightened with colorful lead glazes.

Many of these Victorian novelty teapots feature intricately worked, highly embellished handles complimenting the pots’ themes, like fish tails, monkeys, cats, and branches. Some also boast imaginative spouts. Imagine pouring tea through dragons’ mouths, cockerel’s beaks, or winding vines. Naturally, these whimsies, if free of chips, cracks, stains, and other imperfections, are extremely collectable, commanding high prices.

The earliest 20th century novelty teapots often reflected the times. Some portrayed memorable events like coronations and silver jubilees, while later ones featured World War I patriotic slogans. By the 1930s, these themed creations gave way to racing car, train engine, and airplane pots, a sure sign that technology was developing at an alarming speed.

Since World War II, a staggering number of novelty teapots have flooded the market, everything from pop-eyed froggies, teddy bears enjoying breakfast in bed, Alice in Wonderlands, to majolica-style King Corn teapots, their textured yellow corncobs rising from green husk bases. Tea lovers and teapot collectors alike may find pussy cat, fish in a teapot (evidently escapees from Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat), piano with music books, bright red M&M teapots, and the like irresistible. But let the buyer beware. Though these novelties may be pleasing, many are cheaply made and mass-produced, many manufactured in Taiwan and China.

Since the 1970s, young studio craftsmen, like their pottery predecessors, have been designing and creating their own unique teapots in limited quantities. Tony Carter, based in Suffolk, England, makes most of his teapots to order. His collection includes everything from diminutive cupcake “one cuppas,” to his many-cupped Belfast Sink, Old School Desk, and Dressing Table teapots. Current bestsellers, which include Handbag NY (and studded with red hearts), Poetry Books, and Canal Boat Red teapots, are all highly glazed and a pleasure to behold – if not actually used.

Paul Cardew, another popular British potter (and a distant relation of the famed potter Michael Cardew), has also created hand made, amazingly detailed teapots in fine bone china. His Crime Writer Desk teapot, for example, is replete with a telephone, a portrait of Marilyn Monroe (for inspiration, perhaps) and a typewriter. But the manuscript, casually strewn across his desk, is Cardew’s tour de force. With the aid of a magnifying glass, one can actually make out bits of the writer’s latest who-dun-it potboiler.

Cardew’s colors heighten his artistic drama. His 1950s Stove teapot, a black spatter ware beauty, features a striped ’50s dishtowel, along with a metal teapot whose color subtly fades from orange to yellow. This pottery wizard has routinely transformed other common household objects, like kitchen cabinets, side boards, sewing machines, washing mangles, refrigerators, all manner of chairs, and toy boxes, into works of teapot art too. He has also collaborated with The Walt Disney Company, creating pots that range from simple Pooh faces and Pooh heads to intricate Mickey Aviator, Minnie Mouse Dressing Table, and blue-swirled, fantastic Sorcerer’s Apprentice teapots.

Now a news flash. As of June 2008, the Cardew Pottery has closed its doors. So his teapots, some rare even decades ago, will soon command yet higher prices. If half the pleasure is in the hunt, collectors are in for heady days to come.

What does the future hold for novelty teapots? Funny, funky, fantastic teapots, the kind that bring a smile to your lips as you sip, will be around as long as people enjoy drinking steaming cuppas – and collecting.

Click here to discuss this story and more in the message boards.