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Porcelain and Tea from the age of 6

by Tom Carrier (12/11/08).

When your son buys his very first piece of antique porcelain at the age of 6—as opposed to a toy truck—as a parent, you know he is destined to be interested in history, art and antiques. In the case of Christopher Kent, this turned out to be true.

Kent, a WorthPoint Worthologist, is a generalist—someone who knows a little about a lot of different subjects—but specializes in antique and collectible furniture, glassware, porcelain and the decorative arts.

But when presented with a specific topic, such as the differences in early Japanese, Chinese and English porcelain teapots and tea sets, his easily demonstrates his immense knowledge of the subject.

Kent began his collection with an 18th century Japanese ceramic tea bowl and saucer set he found in a junk shop when he was no older than 6. “It is a very early 18th century piece of Japanese porcelain,” he says. “Interestingly, about this piece, Japan was not really known for its ceramics until the 18th century, and this particular one has a slight blue cast underglaze and is decorated with stylized locusts and flowers and is coming from about 1730.”

During the same period (from 1710 to 1730), Kent added, China began exporting porcelain teacups and saucers, too, but with a noticeable difference. The Chinese export cups had a handle.

“It was a new invention, as far as tea bowls were concerned,” Kent says. “Because prior to the handle, which was a Western addition, a tea bowl was simply a bowl and you poured your tea from the cup itself into the saucer, allowed it to cool and you drank it from there.”

The first tea bowl for export was made in the Japanese city of Imari and sent to Europe. Known as Imari porcelain, it was first developed in the 16th century from local clay. The German city of Meissen also developed china tea cups as well, but were first introduced without the handle, as was the norm in the Far East.

Kent says he found an 1810 to 1820 style porcelain teapot in Savannah, Ga., that was an example of an early 19th-century piece of English porcelain that was not designed to be exported. “It was manufactured by Worcester under the firm Flight & Barr—which bought out the Worcester pottery company—and has decorations considered to be in the Japanese style.”

Royal Worcester was founded in Worcester, England, in 1751 and it specialized in porcelain and bone china. Royal Worcester merged with Spode in 2006, and its former factory in Worcester is now the site of the Worcester Porcelain Museum.

Tea itself was first picked in Yunnan Province, China, about 2800 B.C. and was initially used primarily as a medicinal plant. Known as Camellia sinensis, it is classified by the length of its leaves, from Assam type being the longest and the China type being the smallest. Tea was imported to Europe in the early 17th century and to the American colonies by the middle of the 18th century. It is thought that the catechins, which appears naturally in tea leaves, is a form of an antioxidant, perhaps giving the early claims of tea as having medicinal qualities some credence.

Something to talk about at tea time.

A video showing Christopher Kent showing the differences in early Japanese, Chinese and English porcelain teapots and tea sets can be viewed here .
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