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Old English Tea-Ware
( Originally Published 1913 )
Originality in collecting is not so difficult as it is desirable; I fancy I could suggest a dozen new and special "lines "; and we all of us know at least one untried kind of collection we would make, if beginning again. Old English tea-things, for example, in porcelain and earthenware; nothing could be more decorative, typical, patriotic, and comparatively inexpensive to collect.
Typical and patriotic, I say. Not vases and statuettes of china, but tea cups and saucers, tea-pots, milk-jugs, sugar and slop basins, are the characteristic pieces of old English porcelain.
Western Chinese. Thea bohea, the tea-plant, is the true family-tree of porcelain ; but for the tea-plant there would have been no call for pleasant, clean, washable vessels that could give the beverage no tang. Because of tea-infusions the Orientals drank out of china while Europeans still swigged at the leather bottel.
"I did send for a cup of tea, a Chinese drink, of which I had never drunk before," Pepys wrote, in 1660; ; the Honourable East India Company, which had brought the new drink to London, had brought Chinese tea-cups too. We soon acclimatised them; eleven years later than that, John Dwight took out a patent "for the mysterie of transparent earthenware," and made what he called "red thea-pots."
From the first, tea felt at home in England; in that we are the Western Chinese.Our coffee is well, nearly always bad or soso; but here we get the best tea-drinking in the Western world. Dresden and Sevres made tea things, I know; but what had France, or even Germany, to do with tea? Coffee is their beverage; what palate had the Gaul for tea? To this day you shall see a Frenchman who feels unwell sit down in a cafe and degust with nausea the awful brew he calls "the"; just as our great-grandams with the megrims used to drink camomile-tea, as they called it.It was over here, not there, that tea and tea-cups took out letters of naturalisation, and they are English, quite English, by now.Even in the year 1750 "You must understand that there is no good tea to be had anywhere but in England," a Frenchwoman wrote home to Rouen.
Splendid Cabinets. What better decoration for a drawing-room than a cabinet sparsely filled with old English tea-things? The Chelsea claret hue, which even Sevres was fain to copy; the Worcester lapislazuli, salmon-pink, and powder-blue; the Derby apple-green, royal blue, and yellow; the Longton Hall cobalt and madder-rose, the Coalport crimson lake and the Davenport purple. In among them, for cool contrast, a few of Leeds and Wedgwood cream-ware cups and saucers, daintily edged with woodbine pattern, or transfer printed in red.To the eye and colour sense a cabinet of these old wares gives the delight of a riot of Turneresque hues, for Time has brushed in the halftones, the chemistry of light and air has chastened the primary colours, and the play of shine and shadow on the brilliant glazes gives the rest.
You still can pick up single TEAPOY. pieces of tea-ware, to make up a "harlequin set," for prices less than once given for them when new, a hundred and twenty to a hundred and sixty years ago.
When ladies had to pay several crowns a pound for tea they were content to pay several pounds for a Crown Derby tea-set: the fine dear drink and the fine dear ware went fitly together. Dr. Johnson goes to "drink tay" with Mrs. Thrale, you remember, and over his eleventh cup he berates the foolish costliness of " chaney." He smacks the table: "Ma'am, I visited the Derby pottery, and I protest I could have vessels of silver as cheap as what are made of porcelain there!"
Delighting in her Worcester tea-set-blue, with glints of red and gold-Mrs. Thrale sits smiling at the rusty old economist; as in "The Wander Years" I have told.
The pride of those old-time hostesses over their " equipages," as they called their tea-sets! Their personal care of each cup, their washing and drying it with their own hands! Though they could not know what value the things were in the end to acquire. A Worcester tea and coffee " equipage," scale-blue with panels of exotic birds, and the square mark at the base, has sold for seven hundred guineas; a cup and saucer of the kind, sold singly, may bring twenty pounds. The rarest in this kind are decorated with figures of men and women, the next most rare with birds, the least rare with flowers, but all of them are rare.
If "Worcester" and "Chelsea" and "Bristol" teathings are out of your reach, as they well may be, and small blame to you, collect Derby, Rockingham, Coalport, Davenport, early Minton, Spode-technically the most perfect ever made-Newhall, and cream-ware tea-things. And you need not house them in cabinets; they suit the corner cupboard and the chimney-breast. There is something hearth-like and dog-like about their homely friendliness and readiness for use. They are so human and Adamic, framed of such dust as we ourselves inhabit awhile, and sharing our mortality though exceeding our span.