On 25th September 1660, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary that he had sent for ‘a Cupp of Tee (a China drink), of which I had never drank before’. Prior to the mid-17th century, this mysterious exotic drink was completely unknown to Europeans. Although tea had first been introduced to Portuguese priests and merchants in China during the 16th century, it was not until the first decades of the 1600s that the Portuguese and the Dutch began to import both black and green tea into Europe from their trading bases in Macao. The drink quickly became established in the Netherlands and Portugal and in 1657 the first consignments of tea reached London.


CCN 1252. Shipwreck teapot (one of a pair), porcelain and enamels, China, 1654-1722

With the establishment of tea drinking in Europe came the need for new vessels and furniture for its preparation and service. The craze for Chinoiserie wares that spread across Europe during the 1600s led to great demand for Chinese porcelain teawares that at that time could not be replicated by European potters. Because of the long voyage, these commodities were initially very expensive and considered the height of fashionable taste. Not all ships arrived safely in Europe, however. This teapot (left, CCN 1252) was discovered in the wreck of a 17th century Portuguese ship that was bringing tea and tea wares from China. The saltwater has removed its glaze and remnants of barnacles can still be seen inside.

Upon reaching Europe, Asian teawares were often altered by European craftsmen to make them more suited to Western tastes. The Chinese tea bowl and its matching saucer below (CCN 161) were exported to the Netherlands during the late 17th century where they were over-painted in red enamels with boating and fishing scenes. The early 18th century Chinese teapot (below, CCN 409) was also embellished in the Netherlands, this time with silver-gilt mounts intended to add luxury and rarity. Mounts also helped to mask any breakages that had occurred during the voyage.

CCN 161. Cup and saucer, China over-decorated in the Netherlands, ca.1730-1770 and CCN 409. Teapot, China, Kangxi Period, 1662-1722, gold mounts added in the Netherlands, ca. 1720

During the mid-17th century, Chinese porcelain production, which had dominated the international market up to that point, went into decline due to the fall of the Ming Dynasty. European traders therefore turned to Japan and began to encourage their fledgling porcelain industry. Porcelain production began in Japan in the early 17th century, several hundred years after it had first been made in China during the Tang dynasty (618–906). From the port of Imari, the Japanese would transport the goods to Nagasaki, where Dutch traders could pick them up and ship them to Europe.

As in China, Japanese export wares were designed specifically to cater to Western tastes. CCN 186 (below, left) is an example of Kakiemon wares that were made in the Kakiemon kilns in Arita to be shipped to Europe. These objects feature motifs derived from Japanese paintings, such as animals, figures and flowers, which were painted in a palette of red, yellow, green, blue and black set against a milky white ground. The pair of teapots (below, CCN 1254) are decorated in the ‘Imari’ style that is characterised by underglaze cobalt blue, overglaze iron red and gilding. The term originates from the name of the port in West Japan from where these wares and others goods were shipped to Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries.

CCN 186. Kakiemon teapot, Japan, Edo period, ca. 1670-1690 and CCN 1254. Pair of Imari teapots, porcelain, enamels and gilding, Japan, Edo period, 18th century.

Initially, tea, along with two other new exotic beverages, chocolate and coffee, was enjoyed in coffee houses in the city, all-male meeting places for business and debate. However, Charles II’s Queen, Catherine of Braganza, who was accustomed to drinking tea in her homeland, also made it a court drink that was then adopted by the aristocratic ladies. By the turn of the 18th century, tea drinking had become established as a hallmark of social distinction and polite hospitality to be performed with elegant courtly manners.

Catherine of Braganza by or after Dirk Stoop, oil on canvas, 1660-1, National Portrait Gallery

Venus her Myrtle, Phoebus has his Bays;
Tea both excels, which she vouchsafes to praise.
The best of Queens, and best of Herbs, we owe 
To that bold Nation, which the Way did show 
To the fair Region where the Sun doth rise, 
Whose rich Productions we so justly prize. 

The Muse’s friend, tea does our fancy aid,
Repress those vapours which the head invade,
And keeps that palace of the soul serene,
Fit on her birthday to salute the Queen

Edmund Waller, ‘Of Tea, Commended by
Her Majesty’, composed c.1680.

Although it is difficult to quantify the amount of tea drunk by Europeans in the early years of consumption, it is clear that imports increased dramatically. In England in 1678, for example, it has been estimated that imports of just under 5000lbs ‘glutted the market’ but between 1700 and 1768 annual consumption rose from about 20,000lbs to almost 6 million lbs. Facilitated by the opening of tea shops, from which tea could be bought and brewed at home, tea drinking shifted into the female domestic sphere. In response, European artists and manufacturers began to create a range of teawares in ceramic and silver destined for the home, as while export wares arrived in Europe in substantial quantities, they remained rare commodities that only the wealthy could afford. The very small teapot below (CCN 405) by Adam Loofs, the court goldsmith to William III, King of England and Stadtholder of the Netherlands, is one of the earliest surviving silver examples of what became the teapot’s established form.

CCN 405. Teapot, by Adam Loofs, Netherlands, 1701 and CCN 296. Kettle and stand, by Simon Pantin, England, 1704

By the early 18th century, teapots and teacups had been joined by kettles, tea caddies, sugar bowls, slop bowls, teaspoons, teaspoon trays and large salvers or tea tables, upon which the lady of the house would lay out the tea set and elegantly serve her guests.  By the 1720s it was usual for black tea, which had become more popular than green, to be drunk with milk and this necessitated the introduction of the milk jug to the tea service. Hot water kettles were also particularly important because they could be used to re-fill the small teapots, allowing the costly tea leaves to be reused. This example above (CCN 296) was made by the renowned silversmith Simon Pantin. The burner underneath the kettle would have been filled with spirit and set alight to keep the water hot, while the fruitwood handle, finials and feet acted as insulators. Teawares made from silver were treasured possessions and often formed an important part of wealthy family estates.

A Family Being Served with Tea, c.1745, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art,
Paul Mellon Collection
In this painting, a group of fashionable ladies are seated at the tea table. In the background, a servant is bringing in the hot water kettle, the stand for which is in the corner of the room. It was the servant’s job to refill the teapot with hot water from the kettle, while the lady of the house would serve the tea to her guests.

Canisters, such as the set below (CCN 1372), were used to store dry tea leaves and would have originally belonged in a lockable tea chest. As tea was an exotic and costly commodity, the lady of the house kept the key for the tea chest to deter pilfering servants. One canister is engraved with the letter ‘G’ for green tea and the other is marked with the letter ‘B’ for bohea tea, or black tea, as it was then known. The central canister was originally intended for mixing a blend of both teas or for the storage of sugar. Tea canisters became known as ‘caddies’ in Britain, a term derived from the Malay word, ‘kati’, for a weight equivalent to about half a kilogram, the amount in a standard 18th century packet of tea.

During the 17th century, the much prized porcelain from China and Japan could not be replicated by Europeans. In 1708, however, the secret of porcelain production was finally understood in Germany and led to the growth of the European porcelain industry. This discovery is credited to Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus but it was Johann Friedrich Böttger’s workshop in Meissen that became the earliest porcelain manufactory. For the first time, European potters were able to produce porcelain tea wares that rivalled those being imported from the East. Initially, many designers decorated their teawares in imitation of Chinese and Japanese prototypes. The teapot below (CCN 646) by the artistic director of Böttger porcelain, J.J. Irminger, was inspired by Chinese Dehua porcelain wares known as blanc-de-Chine.

CCN 646. Böttgerporcelain teapot, Meissen porcelain factory, Germany, ca.1714-1719

The rise of porcelain manufactories in Europe during the 18th century also led to the creation of tea services with a uniform style and decoration. A matching set of tea wares quickly became a symbol of genteel living and it was not uncommon for the wealthy to possess several tea sets in their china closet. At the same time, tea sets began to be decorated with European designs or painted scenes, although it was still common for tea cups to be made without handles in imitation of Asian tea bowls. Such was the fashion for tea drinking in Europe that miniature sets (such as CCN 644, below) were often given to young aristocratic girls to educate them on how to make and serve tea. This exquisite example was made by the famous French porcelain manufactory Sèvres in 1768.

CCN 644. ’Dinette’ tea set, Sèvres porcelain factory, France, 1768

Over the 18th century tea drinking slowly became more affordable and gradually transformed from exotic novelty to domestic ritual. In concurrence, tea imports continued to rise, particularly after the government cut the tax levied on tea in 1784. The growing demand for fine ceramics and teawares led to the growth of the Staffordshire potteries in England which experimented with ceramic production in order to manufacture elegant yet affordable tea wares for the middle classes. The teapot below (left, CCN 129) is made from caneware, a buff coloured stoneware developed by the renowned Wedgwood Factory in the 18th century. The pale colour suited this new form of bamboo design, which appealed to clients due to the continuing taste for exotic decoration on teawares. The teapot on the right (CCN 1432) is made from agateware, a type of pottery that imitates the swirling patterns of agate, a semi-precious stone that was prized during the 17th and 18th centuries. The finial takes the form of a Chinese lion, again reflecting the ongoing fashion for chinoiserie motifs.

CCN 129. Teapot, encaustic painted caneware, Josiah Wedgwood & Sons, England, 1782 and CCN 1432. Teapot, agate earthenware, lead glaze, Staffordshire, England, ca.1740