Tea chest and two canisters

ARTIST / MAKER: Bilston (manufacturer)
DATE: Unknown
PLACE: Staffordshire (made)
MATERIALS AND TECHNIQUES: Mahogany chest, gilt copper canisters painted in enamels

By the second half of the 18th century, the most fashionable beverage throughout British society was tea, completely surpassing the taste for coffee-drinking. This mahogany tea chest contains two gilt-copper tea canisters, which attest to the wide array of tea accoutrements that were being produced domestically for Britain’s fashion-conscious tea drinkers. The canisters were produced at Bilston, an area in South Staffordshire which specialised in the production of caddies, boxes and other recipients painted with enamels in the newly fashionable Rococo style, which arrived from France in the early 1760s. Staffordshire enamels are characterised by flamboyant colours and assymetrical ornament, coupled with gilt scrolls and pastoral scenes often borrowed from French, Italian and Dutch paintings of the time.

The lid and base parts of these caddies were made from thin copper sheets pressed into shaped moulds to create their form. The surface of the copper would have been roughened with an acid solution to enable the application of enamels. Base colours such as white or pastel hues were applied, before transfer-printed outlines in black or brown were added to create the scenes. The transfer prints were then enhanced with hand-painted details, and white enamels would have been added in layers to create scrollwork in relief, a technique known as bianco sopra, which can be seen on the pink borders on both caddies. Every coat of applied enamel would have been fired in the kiln to create a hardwearing surface and a lustrous finish.