Art of the Brew: the rich art history of tea wares
Throughout history, and across the globe, we have seen that tea has been long intertwined with tradition and cultural development. From ancient traditions in Asia to making their way across the globe to the early Americas, tea drinking and the tea ceremony have developed and long been revered. It is a respected tradition that brings communities together and also marks significant cultural milestones.
Just as we note how important it is to get together for a brew. Either for breakfast or after a long day at work, the tea sets that we use to consume and share tea have seen waves of adaptation and reinvention. The history of the humble tea set is varied and well worth diving into.
Chinese tea sets
In China, tea is used as an important cultural signifier, carried through centuries of tradition. As tea grew from being consumed for medicinal benefit, to being enjoyed daily by people from all walks of life. Tea sets were elaborately decorated and sculpted, for the everyday tea drinker, to more affluent members of higher classes. Considered one of the seven necessities of daily life, the importance of tea in Chinese culture is one that should not be underestimated, shown in the abundance of teahouses throughout the country.
Traditionally, Yi Xing (or purple clay) teapots were used to brew tea. This specific type of clay allowed small amounts of the tea to be absorbed into the pot, and was not washed but rinsed with water. Over time the flavour of the teas brewed in each pot would deepen with flavour.
Japanese tea sets
As tea made its way across Asia to Japan, the Japanese too developed their own culture of tea drinking. early on from its religious connections in Japanese culture, as it was believed that Buddhist monk Dengyo Daishi was the first to bring Chinese tea leaves to Japan.
The elaborate decoration of teapots and cups further cemented the importance of tea as a cultural tradition globally. Painted with tapestry-like qualities, the images featured on tea sets added a stronger cultural reverence that we still marvel at today.
Japanese Kutani ware is one of many unfathomably beautiful examples of the delicate art of hand-painted tea ware. It was divided into two key eras – Ko-Kutani, or Old Kutani of the 17th and 18th centuries, which used bolder and more vivid colours in its decoration. The second era, Saiko Kutani, marked a revived production in the 19th century. Signifiers of this era in these Kutani porcelain cups were its shift to red design or printing called aka-e, with gold brocade called kinran-de, which combined to make aka-e kinran-de Kutani specifically.
European tea sets
Most notably, tea drinking in Europe, particularly in Britain, has become an ingrained part of the cultural makeup. It is almost synonymous with being British in general. We still hold on to high tea, as a tradition in millions of family homes and indulge in afternoon tea on occasion. During Queen Victoria’s rule, the afternoon tea tradition had been solidified in society. The typical tea service had grown to include multiple components including coffee pots and cups, milk jugs, sugar bowls and even slop bowls! Sets were typically made in sterling silver or fine ceramics. It is also quite interesting to see how there are similar stylistic influences from Kutani wares in the decoration of British tea sets.
With the importance of tea established, new schools of art used the humble teapot and cup as a new playground for innovative design. Modernist designers reconstructed the tea set and used new and unconventional shapes and silhouettes to add intrigue to tradition. Salins Studio in France in particular makes for an idiosyncratic approach to tea drinking. A mixture of unconventional shapes and elements creates a surrealist visual display. It is quite a modernist interpretation of Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.
The art of tea wares and the artistry of brewing was a celebration of a much-loved beverage. From such a humble drink, we are left with remarkable decorative artefacts. These items hold complex rituals and traditions within, as well as the rich flavours of delicate hand-picked tea leaves.