The story of the Red China Teapot

Robin Hildyard

Victoria & Albert Museum


With the first shipment of tea to be imported by the East India Company in 1669 came 10 worth of a hard red teaware then unknown in England, the vitrified red stoneware of Yixing which had excellent heat-preserving properties and which the Chinese themselves preferred for tea making. 

Imports rapidly increased, to the point where John Dwight of Fulham sought out suitable iron-rich Staffordshire clays and included 'opacous redd and darke coloured Porcellane' in his second stoneware patent of 1684. Excavations at the Fulham Pottery, however, have proved that manufacture never progressed much beyond the experimental stage.

At this point the brothers John Philip and David Elers came to London from Holland, where successful copies of Yixing teapots were already being made at Delft. Ignoring Dwight's patent, in 1690 they isolated an excellent seam of red-firing stoneware clay with good casting properties at Bradwell Wood in Staffordshire, and immediately set about adapting their silversmithing skills to making slip-cast lathe-turned red stoneware. 

Since sales of these extremely expensive pots were handled in London, it was not long before Dwight found out and forced them to come to an agreement with him. But despite a market hungry for red stoneware teapots, the Elers' terror of employing local potters and their consequent highly inefficient methods of manufacture (which did not include the potter's wheel) ensured that the business would founder. Leaving Staffordshire in 1698, they were declared bankrupt in 1700.

This episode might have spelled the end of red stoneware in England, especially since the Elers removed all traces of their production methods and materials. 

Meanwhile imports from Yixing continued at an ever-increasing pace, to which the Staffordshire potters could only respond by making lead-glazed red earthenwares in the 1720-30s. But in the 1740s the great advances in refining clays and making fine wares, together with the simultaneous development of moulding techniques, at last enabled excellent copies to be made. 

Unlike the Elers' pots, these were either press-moulded or, more usually, thrown on the wheel and decorated with exceptionally crisp applied 'sprigged' ornament, and often marked on the base with an unidentifiable pseudo-Chinese seal mark. The expensive addition of size-gilding to the applied ornament has very rarely survived a century or two of washing-up. 

Soon red stoneware, though never mass-produced, was added to the repertoire of many potteries and achieved a peak of excellence and popularity in the 1750s-60s, after which its manufacture spread to Yorkshire and eventually petered out at the end of the century. 

Certainly by 1776 Josiah Wedgwood was lamenting that his new 'Rosso Antico' body, which contained manganese to give it a pinkish 'Antique' look, would be rejected by a public glutted on the ubiquitous red teapot. Some indication, however, of its status in the early years of manufacture may be gleaned from the fact that although the 'Red China' itself was immensely strong, it was often used continuously almost to the point of destruction and then repaired with anything that would restore its original function spouts, handles and lids of lead, tin, brass, silver, or wood.

The teapot in question, press-moulded with the 'Indian Boy' pattern ('Indian' here meaning 'Chinese', but imported by the East India Co) must be one of the most desirable types of early Staffordshire red stoneware. The design, depicting a naked boy surrounded by peonies, was closely copied from a Yixing original but has been adapted to fit an octagonal pot by adding delightfully incongruous flanking scenes of classical figures with vine leaves and anthemion borders. 

With typical potter's economy, the same original block-mould has been used for each half of the pot, and the pattern has neatly been incorporated into the moulded spout. Other in-the-round versions are known on three-legged cream jugs and globular teapots, forms which were also occasionally made in Solid Agate or colour-glazed 'Whieldon' ware. In fact, matching fragments of this pattern, together with the rabbit finials found on some octagonal teapots, were indeed excavated at Thomas Whieldon's Fenton Vivian pottery site in the 1960s; and a block mould was excavated at the Whieldon site in the 1920s and is now in the Wedgwood Museum. 

Although slightly differing fragments were also found at the neighbouring pottery site at Fenton Low, this little teapot with metal replacement lid, was identified from Whieldon fragments already in the V&A and purchased by the Museum in 1951 for 8 a hundredth or less of its present value.

Another pot which exhibits some of the desperation and all of the ingenuity of the 18th century china restorer, was lent to the South Kensington Museum in 1870 by descendants of the London retailers Neale & Bailey. Most importantly, it came with that rarest of things in the ceramic world, a cast-iron provenance, in the form of a manuscript copy of a memorandum from that great manufacturer and first collector of Staffordshire pottery, Enoch Wood, whose own private ceramic museum opened at Burslem about 1816:

'Memorandum Feby 28 1824

This Red China Teapot was made by the Father of Mr. Thos Wedgwood Big House Burslem, about Seventy Years since. Mrs. T.W. desires you to present it to Mr. Thos Bailey St. Pauls Ch. Yard London (signed) Enoch Wood'

There are compelling reasons for believing this. First, Enoch Wood was the greatest living expert on Staffordshire pottery, and, secondly, his father Aaron Wood (the famous block maker) had been apprenticed to Thomas Wedgwood of the Big House, Burslem, the major maker of white salt-glaze. Unfortunately, attributions for unmarked pots can quickly be lost, and almost as quickly re-invented. Not only had Thomas' father Aaron Wedgwood died as early as 1743 but the pot itself, moulded with stylised clouds and birds, is of a type well known at Yixing and never copied by the Staffordshire potters. If further proof were needed, the seal-mark  identifies it as a product of a known Yixing pottery: 'Lodge of Music and Stone'.

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but for ceramic history it is the archaeologist's spade that proves much more reliable than the strongest unbroken family tradition. Fascinating though the much-repaired Yixing pot is (the trade would describe it as a 'relic'), any collector would surely prefer to own its Whieldon cousin.




Questions, comments, contributions? email: Steve Birks