Salt-glazed Stoneware Mug, Bourne, Late 19th Century (Personal collection)
Apparently I’ve been an avid tea-drinker since before I can remember – one relative told me that the beverage was at times given me in a dummy, and that I greedily supped it from a baby’s cup as soon as able to hold one; and I recall the grown-up feeling when permitted to drink tea from a ceramic cup. I became interested in the material culture of tea-drinking later as an older child, when sometimes allowed by my mother to drink from the Victorian crockery in her collection. These included tea consumed from beer- as well as tea-mugs and coffee ‘cans’, such as (from memory) mid-late 19th century salt-glazed stoneware (similar to the above example) and mochaware (see below) mugs, and ‘moustache’ cups, as well as dainty China of all varieties (such as the Gaudy ware cup and saucer shown below). I didn’t think this in any way unusual until when I began my BA at Nottingham I noticed almost identical vessels on display in the Uni museum. At first, this notion provoked mild amusement, as I was then most interested in late prehistory and the early medieval periods, and the thought of having to ‘glove-up’ to handle such modern material seemed ridiculous, though since this time I’ve realised the benefits of studying postmedieval material archaeologically (myself concentrating on the 17th – early 20th centuries).
Mochaware, 19th Century (Private collection)
Not that the idea of ‘preciousness’ with regard to the ceramics of more recent centuries was alien to my family; but the most hallowed material to me – as it could never be used, and only rarely was I able to touch and inspect it more closely – was the ‘Derby’ tea-ware that took pride of place within my grandmother’s China cabinet. There was little on show that is today most commonly associated with the town’s most illustrious export: only an odd Imari– and other frequently-seen styled side plate nestled among more unusual pieces. This treasured collection represented a range of wares painted by my mother when she worked for the factory in the 1960s, some I believe being her apprentice pieces, and so perhaps more individualistic that the run-of-the-mill popular patterns. Although intrinsically beautiful, it was perhaps their ‘biographies’ that made these items the more lovely and special to me.
Royal Crown Derby 1924 Bone China Saucer (Personal collection)
The other ceramics that were precious to my sibling and I were the numerous delicate, high quality, and older (17th – early 19th century) wares, which were rarer, so more expensive, and being usually destined for resale, I didn’t often get too close to these. Although possibly momentarily awed by their age, production by famous artisans, and economic worth, they held minimum interest. This was possibly because of their temporary sojourn in the house, often out of reach; my distance from them denied opportunities to emotionally invest through handling and use. These often-delightful objects were and had to remain primarily commercial entities, and their potential lay in what their exchange for hard cash might bring. They also wouldn’t have been of much practical use, being far too small for my greedy tea-drinking needs.
19th Century (post-Regency – early Victorian) ‘Gaudy Welsh’ Teacup and Saucer (Personal collection)
Though as a child and adolescent I had a general interest in old tea-cups (and other artefacts), my curiosity and intrigue was not (as might be expected) as concentrated as it is today. I’m currently conducting research on the role of tea-drinking in establishing female social networks during the 17th – early 20th centuries (for PSP), and intend to develop these studies into a public talk, and possibly an academic paper, on the material culture of tea- (and other hot beverage-) drinking in the long eighteenth-century, focusing my more general interest in the topic. On occasions frustratingly, the material of this date that I now mostly encounter is incomplete and fragmentary – sometimes as surface or excavated sherds, but more often in site reports and academic books and articles. And in order to more fully understand how people in the past engaged with material culture – how it may have affected their thoughts, feelings, and actions – the close inspection of complete (or near complete) vessels is necessary.
Late 18th Century (Caughley?) Porcelain Tea-ware Sherd, Probably (Personal Collection)
I have my own large collection of later wares, though have not for some time worked with entire vessels from 18th and early 19th century tea-sets. Such material is displayed within various contexts – mainly in print and in museums: behind ropes and glass; and in photos, videos, and drawings. But such visual sources are no substitute to artefact handling, opportunities for which are for many who study material culture both uncommon, and invaluable. The chance to go beyond secondary sources, and purely visual analysis of static artefacts seen from one of a limited range of angles – to engage sensually, with greater scrutiny, and to attempt experiential analyses – is pretty much essential if to approach the various cultural and social ‘meanings’ of this material. When attached to higher education institutions, it was relatively unproblematic to arrange examination of material within museum collections; but such opportunities are limited to independent researchers such as I. In addition, the extent to which artefacts might be scrutinised is constrained, possibilities for more active engagement unlikely. So for a while I’ve been looking forward to getting my hands on my mother’s continuing collection.
The Easter break provided an opportunity for travel from the Midland region where I’m based, to the eastern territories in which my mother and her collections reside. I thus had the chance to grope some fine (and not quite so fine) Georgian porcelain, ‘china’, earthenware, and glassware. Willingly my mother laid tea-bowl after coffee can, after chocolate pot, in front of me, all of which I eagerly cupped and weighed in my palms, flicked and stroked, upturned and held aloft to the light.
Late 18th Century Chinese Porcelain Coffee Cup (Private collection)
Although during this session I didn’t attempt to fill any of the vessels with tea to attain a yet wider range of sensory experiences, it was nonetheless very useful to handle the empty objects. Indeed, not only was their emptiness necessary to observe and touch various surfaces of the vessels (scrutinising bases would most obviously have been problematic otherwise), but this state also brought to mind how when unused and on display, the vessels might have been encountered differently by household occupants and visitors. For instance, the decoration of one saucer appeared quite crude when viewed horizontally on a nearby table, or held close to the body, as if employed in tea-drinking. But when placed vertically on display, the difference between this object and that which it aimed to imitate was far much less obvious less noticeable – and period lighting would surely have further fooled the eye.
Chinese Porcelain Teabowl, 18th Century (Private collection)
This engagement with my mother’s collection also enabled me to pose question to her regarding the origin, manufacturing processes, and companion material of the objects she showed me – information gained through decades of experience in the antique trade, which complemented the information that I had accumulated through my own studies. Indeed, I was almost overwhelmed when while placing these exotic objects before me she shared her considerable knowledge – so much so that I was unable to keep up in taking notes. I also took numerous photos to aid my saturated memory, and for future reference (and possible inclusion within educational resources, talks, and workshops). Yet despite these mnemonics and digital remnants, I was still reluctant to leave the collection behind. I did not covert these objects with intensity, and I did not covet these objects: my desire to take some of them with me as I left was not a yearning for ownership per se. It was rather a regret that I might not have them in ready sight and touch to hand, to inspire and inform research, and so that I might enable others to encounter this material in the same easy manner as I had been privileged to, with similar spontaneity and joy. Nevertheless, I still ran out of time – there’s a limit to what others may tolerate in watching an archaeologist drool over pots!
Berlin Porcelain Teabowl, Late 18th – Early 19th Century (Private collection)
I hope to again examine the collection – if time allows paying greater attention to sensory engagement, perhaps filling a few vessels with tea to consider how their balance and heat might have affected movement and posture, and to explore the effects of the steam, smells, and tastes that would have emanated from the liquid. With many of the associated material trappings available – except, unfortunately for the present, an 18th-century drawing room – I might further attempt to approximate the conditions in which these artefacts were used. By incorporating appropriate furniture, costume, lighting and heating, extraneous sounds, and codified behaviour, etc., it may be possible to explore more fully the additional constraints and influences of apparel and surroundings upon bodily practices. It will never be possible to but partially reach or replicate past mindsets, though when informed by research process and conducted within theoretical frameworks, such forms of engagement do often highlight modern assumptions, and provoke questions that might usefully be asked of the evidence.
Berlin Porcelain Chocolate Pot, Late 18th – Early 19th Century (Private collection)