Sunday, 7 June 2015

Our History, In Pieces — Sprigging Luverly

Here's a nice desirable sherd of pottery and one that I had wanted to find for years before I finally did. It turned up in the most popular place for a family fossick on the entire Thames — at Bankside, and right outside Tate Modern. Quite how it had eluded others is beyond me, but there it was, half buried in the shingle and better, that patch yielded a number of other finds too. But that's how the Thames works. You don't wander off having found one thing. You stick at it right where the first find was made in the certain knowledge that you have discovered an area of fresh erosion that will continue to be productive until that erosion stops.

This is Roman 'terra sigillata' more commonly known as 'Samian ware', of course. A deep glossy brick red in colour, smooth and fine in texture and decorated with what's probably a legionary eagle. Surely there's no mistake about that. But hang on — what's that hole in the knob for?

Romans didn't drink tea... 

Not so far as we know, but the Chinese certainly did and when we British found out we built an Empire to rival Rome upon it.

The rise of the British Empire was fuelled by the stuff. It was the quintessential British beverage for three centuries and at the height of our power and influence late in the reign of Queen Victoria we consumed an astounding 6lb per person per year of dried leaf and fashioned teapots the size of pumpkins to brew it in.

As you can see, the teapot filled by the servant woman is rather small.
Hogarth's 'Apprehended by a Magistrate' from 'A Harlots Progress', 1732. 

Mercurius Politicus. September 1658
But in the beginning, our teapots were more the size of an orange than a pumpkin. And that's because tea was prohibitively expensive. It was more commonly available in coffee houses in the third quarter of the 1600's. The London newspaper, Mercurius Politicus, September 1658 announced,

'That Excellent, and by all Physicians approved, China Drink, called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee', is sold at the Sultans Head, a Coffee house in Sweetings Rents by the Royal Exhange'.

At the time tax due was calculated from its liquid form. They'd brew up in the morning, the tax officer would quantify the duty to pay on the total pints made, it was kept on the boil all day long and dispensed in tiny cups for an appreciative public of gentlemen. But in 1689 the tax rules were changed. The leaf form was taxed instead (at about 25%) when it became available to anyone wanting to brew at home, but only to those very few who could afford to pay £10 per pound (equivalent to £1,000 per pound today!) and just as importantly, also secure the teapot in which to brew it.

Yixing teapot, 17th Century. Later repairs.
Probably the first ceramic teapots Joe Public clapped eyes on were those imported along with the initial tea consignment the East India Company brought back from Java in 1664. The shipment contained 100lb of tea worth at least £1,000 and perhaps more, but just £10 worth of these pots.

Alien objects made of a vitrified red clay the like of which had never been seen before and decorated with strange relief motifs that must have been quite a sensation to our eyes, they sold out immediately. Imports increased as tea drinking caught on but there were never quite enough pots to go round and demand was increasing exponentially so John Dwight of Fulham set to work to create copies. He never got beyond experiments and seems to have never sold a single pot, but a couple of Dutchmen did.

Elers Teapot, circa 1690
John Philip Elers and his brother David came to England, found a seam of the right kind of clay in Staffordshire, and created the first convincing British versions of the Chinese pots. But they ran into trouble with Dwight who tried to enforce his patent. Ignoring it they carried on regardless.

They sold but few. And not because the demand wasn't there. It was. Their failure was down to the fact that they were paranoid in the extreme about keeping their methods secret, each hand crafted pot was extremely time consuming to make and their products just too expensive for anyone but the most wealthy to purchase. The Elers brothers were declared bankrupt in 1700.

However, the Staffordshire 'potbanks' weren't to be defeated. By that time the tea trade was becoming less of a legitimate business and more of a criminal operation because taxation was spiralling out of control finally reaching an astonishing 119% by mid century. The gap between those who could afford this luxury and those who wanted to enjoy it was widening so far that, of course, smugglers stepped into the breach and supplied it tax free cutting prices (and cutting it with all kinds of other noxious stuff) to the bone. The huge demand had been finally met so the pots just had to be made somehow.

 The Elers had destroyed all evidence of their secrets and methods so initially the potbanks made lead-glazed earthenware versions. These were what we had till 1740 when finally they cracked it. Solving the clay supply problem by improving refining methods they made stoneware versions available at last and better still, threw the pots quickly on a wheel. The market was soon awash with handsome red teapots 'just like' the Chinese originals and cheap enough for the middling and perhaps even working classes, to own and enjoy.

Staffordshire redware 'crabstock handled' teapot, Circa 1760

The sherd under scrutiny is a piece of that history. It is the lid from a teapot and of course it's not a Roman one but a British one made in Staffordshire circa 1740-70. The decorations are known as 'sprigs'. They were formed in a mould, released onto paper, then applied to the damp body of the pot with a little brushed on slip. The dense fine clay is very strong but also takes sharp detail very well and that accounts for a great deal of the appeal. The bird is as crisp as the day it was made, and yet the lid is in a sorry state.

It may have been finally discarded only when the owner grew tired of trying to keep from falling into the pot because they were so treasured that people would use them till essential parts were unserviceable. Unless the pot itself was broken in many pieces and beyond water tight repair it would be kept and mended with new parts fashioned in wood, silver, tin, brass, pewter, and even poisonous lead.

The decorations soon departed from strict copying of Chinese motifs. By mid-century, at the height of Rococo style and our insatiable taste for 'chinoiserie', a delightfully eccentric mixture of sprigs in all kinds of diverse (and increasingly English) designs adorned them. My little teapot lid's bird sprig may look Chinese enough but it may have been accompanied by of all things, a Tudor rose! 

It's just a broken old teapot lid but I reckon I could flog it for £20 on Ebay given the current buoyant market for interesting sherds. I certainly couldn't afford to buy the parent pot in the one piece, though, because an ordinary one would set me back £500 and a rare and fancy one a thousand or two more.

Maybe instead I should list it as,  'Roman Samian Ware Teapot Lid — Legionary Eagle — RARE!'  

And would probably get £30 or perhaps more in succeeding to convince many that it really was...!

But knowing just half the truth behind this little piece of our history is better than peddling a half-thruth to others, so I'll keep it by. Enjoy it for what it is.

Because I think it's just sprigging luverly.

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