Saturday 24 March 2018

Potty about tea - how the teapot is still queen of the table

The teapot may have evolved over the years but it's still the undisputed queen of the table

A Debenhams tea set.
A Debenhams tea set.
Tea set from Carolyn Donnelly
Checkerboard tea set from Ann Marie Robinson
The Chocolate Teapot Experience
Tea set from Chloe Dowds
Jim Turner teapots
Teapots from Maria Connolly
Mermaid teapot from Ann Marie Robinson
Popcorn guest towels from Carolyn Donnelly

'There was a proud Teapot, proud of being made of porcelain, proud of its long spout and its broad handle," wrote Hans Christian Andersen.

His teapot was queen of the tea table (and a bit of a snob). "The sugar bowl and the cream pitcher are permitted to be serving maids of delicacies, but I am the one who gives forth, the adviser," she declared.

Not much has changed since he wrote the story in 1863. The teapot is still the queen of the tea table and (spoiler alert) easily broken.

The traditional Irish granny knew the value of a good teapot and she'd always know if you hadn't scalded the pot. Her tea parties were an elaborate ritual involving cake stands, gossip, paper doilies and three different types of cake. And a teapot.

Afternoon tea, once considered a fuddy-duddy event, is undergoing a revival. Art Tea for two at Dublin's Merrion Hotel costs a staggering €85, but you'll find a version of the same event at most posh hotels around the country. All of them involve teapots.

Once the BBC TV show The Great British Bake Off brought afternoon tea back home, the teapot became an object of desire. You don't have to spend big money to buy one. Ikea's Passera teapot costs a mere €8 and the plain white design combines well with fancy china.

Teapots from Tiger are also cheap, cheerful and well designed. Last year their Tea-bird, another plain white teapot, won an international Good Design Award and is now in the Chicago Athenaeum Architecture and Design Museum. Not bad for a teapot that retailed for around €13.

In the same price bracket, but much more decorative, a teapot from Carolyn Donnelly Eclectic for Dunnes will cost between €12 and €15. Teapots at Debenhams range from a plain white Basics model (€25) to a swanky Gold Lace teapot (€200) by Vera Wang for Wedgewood.

Gilt-edged china has caught the imagination of the younger generation. I blame Lady Gaga, who has been spotted carrying a purple and gold teacup and saucer (it's a less troublesome version of the celebrity pet).

Old teapots, with their protruding spouts and delicate lids, are vulnerable to breakage. Not that many survive, hence the popularity of faux vintage teapots. Royal Albert's Royal Dolton range combines fluted gilt edges and the familiar rosebud pattern with trendy polka dots. There's an element of irony here but people who grew up scorning their parents' tea set can find it hard to see those rosebuds resurrected so soon.

"My teenagers love the whole bone china thing. They think that Royal Dolton is seriously cool," laments the curator and designer Hilary Morley, long-time champion of handmade Irish pottery. Her own friends prefer a handmade teapot. "People love them - they always say that a clay teapot makes a really good cup of tea."

When selecting a teapot she suggests you check the weight. A pot that's heavy when empty will be much heavier when it's full of tea. Another consideration is that a pot with an extravagant handle won't fit under a standard tea-cosy. That's ok if you just want to keep it on a shelf, but if you're planning to make tea in it, there are practicalities to consider.Morley and Tina Byrne of Ceramics Ireland are the curators of Teapots, an exhibition of more than 50 Irish handmade teapots which opens at the Blue Egg Gallery in Wexford tomorrow. Some collectors' items include the truly extravagant Even Mermaids Have Bad Hair Days (€765) by Ann Marie Robinson (expect mermaids and a teapot in more than 14 colours). That's one for the display cabinet, but most are good, solid working teapots that cost between €100 and €200.

Because they're handmade, each one is unique and most of them are full of character. Makers include Joanna Doyle (€120), Maria Connolly (€195), a gorgeously earthy teapot from Marcus O'Mahony (€220) and one that mimics an oil can by Peter Meanley (€155).

Jim Turner's feisty little teapots come in red or green and cost €95 each (that's a fiver more than you'd pay for a mass-produced Denby teapot in Debenhams). You're also buying into a little piece of Irish design history. Turner, based in Rossmore, Co Cork, is one of the makers who kick-started contemporary Irish pottery in the 1970s.

New makers in the show include Chloe Dowds of Wicklow who has won a succession of awards for her porcelain tea set: teapot (€120); mug (€25 each); creamer (€20); and sugar bowl (€18). The pieces are white on the outside and delicately coloured within. "People like the fineness of the work," she explains. "Handmade pottery isn't always so fine."

Teapots, as any potter will tell you, are really difficult to make. "There are so many things to think about," says Dowds. "The spout, the handle, the body and the lid - they all need to relate to each other. You can't have a big heavy handle on a fine teapot and the lid needs to fit! But it's very satisfying when they all come together."

Someone once accused me of writing an article that was "about as much use as a chocolate teapot". My defence is that a chocolate teapot can be very useful indeed! The Chocolate Teapot Experience (€32) from Schokolat looks like a real teapot… fill it with hot water and it gradually melts into a tasty fondue. When you've done dipping strawberries, you just break it up and eat it. What other teapot stays useful when it's broken?

Teapots opens at the Blue Egg Gallery, John's Gate Street, Co Wexford, at 2.30pm on Saturday and will run for a month (053 9145862). See also;;;;;;

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