One of the oldest and widely consumed beverages in the world, tea is regarded as one of cultural items that is much related to ceramics, due to the teabowl and teapot. Varying greatly in size, design and purpose, teapots have a rich and fascinating history, and are believed to have originated in China, at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty. It was the time when leaf infusion became especially popular with different strata of society.
The earliest examples of teapots originating from this period were made from purple clay in China's YiXing Region. These were wares valued for their thin walls, fine texture and beautiful colors, ranging from deep maroon to light buff tones. The YiXing teapots had significant influence on forms of teapots used throughout the world, as well as contributed to the invention of ceramic teapots in the Western world.
Many scholars believe that the design source for ceramic teapots comes from one of two influences which reached Europe in 1600s. One of these was the Islamic coffeepots, seen first in popular coffee houses of England and Europe during this period, while the second design source was the Chinese wine vessels. Despite the fact that tea is of Chinese origin, the design of teapot is basically European. The first ceramic teapots created in Europe were fantasy vessels designed as animals and plants.
However, they were regarded as failures, mainly due to poor quality of clay and workmanship. Although it was Europe that has introduced the teapot design of today, it lacked porcelain technology for producing quality teapots. Porcelain was discovered by a German alchemist in 1708, which entailed the spread of tea consumption in Europe, as until this time European pottery wasn't able to withstand heat of boiling water.
In the early XVIII century, the growing demand for ceramic teapots was recognized by the East India Company, which began importation in large numbers. It commissioned china from Chinese craftsmen and artists, using patterns that appealed to European tastes and market values. Generally, there existed four major areas of designs, namely designs adapted from European prints, including the renowned Georgian House teapots; mock-ups of Oriental designs, like the Tree of Life and Blue Willow; armorials; and the innovative teapots.
The largest and the most extensive collection of ceramic teapots can be found at Norwich Castle Museum that currently features more than 3,000 pieces. It consists of the magnificent Miller Collection purchased in 1988 and composed of teapots from the period 1780-1970, and Bulwer Collection presented by Mrs. Bulwer in 1946. In addition, there had been many bequests and purchases since then, which resulted in the collection now encompassing the entire period of ceramic teapots in Britain from the early XVIII century to the present day.
Among the latest purchases are contemporary ceramic teapots submitted to the national touring exhibition of Norwich Castle: The Story of the British Craft Teapot and Teacosy. Included in the collection are also a number of silver items.