Tea chest and three canisters

ARTIST / MAKER: Thomas Pitts (maker)
DATE: 1760 (made)
PLACE: London (made)
MATERIALS AND TECHNIQUES: Silver, with shagreen, brass and velvet box

When tea was first introduced to Britain in the 17th century, tea leaves were stored inside small porcelain canisters, or caddies, which were imported from China. By the 1700s, the fashion for tea-drinking was a widespread ritual among wealthy British citizens, which established a greater demand for beautiful and functional teawares, with which tea could be prepared and served. This tea chest is made from shagreen, the dyed skin of a shark or stingray, a material which was often used during the 18th century for book binding or for covering portable items of furniture. Tea chests such as this were crafted by skilled cabinet makers to store silver tea canisters. As in this example, the smaller canisters were used to store black and green tea, while the central canister would have been used to store sugar, or to create a blend of both teas depending on the owner’s taste. The East-Asian figures on each lid would have been seen as appropriate decoration for teawares on account of tea’s Chinese origin. The chased, foliate scrolls that decorate each canister are characteristic of the Rococo style, which was fashionable from 1730 to 1770.