For more than a millennium, the influence of tea has seeped its way into cultures all across the world, with a variety of short, stout, sterling, porcelain, earthenware, elegant, awkward, elaborate and pedestrian teapots serving as the centerpiece in social gatherings.
In all that time and in all those places, tea and the object in which it is brewed and served – the teapot – have done more than simply please people’s palates and forge social bonds. They have also deeply influenced art, culture and the bottom line.
The tea trade flowed from China, reaching English shores in the 17th century, where drinking it would become an event. Fortunes were made on the cultivation, production and transportation of tea. Attire worthy of the social ritual that developed around tea was soon required. Rooms were designed where tea could be sipped and served. And, of course, artisans were called on to create increasingly exquisite objects to serve the leafy brew.
“Every artistic movement grabs onto a teapot,” say James Hall, deputy director of the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. “It’s like anything else that artists can get their hands on. How can I make this more interesting, this basic pot, cup, and turn it into a beautiful creation?”
In 1785, patriot Paul Revere crafted a fabulous silver teapot. Charles Frederick Worth, the designer who dominated Parisian fashion in the latter half of the 19th century, designed elaborate gowns to be worn for the purpose of drinking tea. American impressionist Mary Cassatt captured tea time in paintings, including The Tea (1880) and Afternoon Tea Party (1891).
Since the 1990s, Boca Raton-resident Bonnie Seeman has been the mad hatter of teapot making in South Florida. She draws on botany and the human form to create teapots that are functional and whimsical. Her handmade glass and ceramic creations sell for $6,000 and up.
Tangible art fascinates her, especially objects that can be used for a specific purpose. “I am very interested in the utilitarian object and how it can be used as a means of narration,” she says. “My work blends the macabre with the beautiful, which acts as a metaphor for the fragility and resiliency of life. By joining my interests in morphology and anatomy, I present the viewer with a detailed examination of living structures of the natural world.”
All of Seeman’s creations begin life on the potter’s wheel. From there, she often stacks or alters the thrown porcelain forms. She is intrigued by surface textures and often draws on the clay with a dull pencil. Variations and embellishments to the forms are achieved by carving, stamping or adding clay or slip. “The juxtaposition of the botanical and anatomical elements can simultaneously be jarring, disquieting and beautiful,” she says. “This dichotomy also enhances the tactile quality of these works while engaging a personal interaction with the viewer.”
The teapot will get its artistic due at the Norton when High Tea: Glorious Manifestations East and West opens on Feb. 19. The exhibition, which will be on display through May 24, extensively examines tea’s influence on art and culture across the world.
High Tea focuses on eight cultures – China, Korea, Japan, England, Germany, France, Russia, and the United States. Teapots – including those made by Fabergé, Meissen, the Lenox Ceramic Art Company and the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory – are only the beginning.
Sipping tea was often regarded as a high-brow pastime, perhaps because the brew was originally sipped at religious rituals and aristocratic ceremonies. The wild rise in popularity of coffeehouses in recent times, especially in the United States, has helped to transform tea’s image into something more accessible. In Palm Beach County, you can enjoy a delightful array of tea experiences as well as a variety of tea blends.
JAPANESE TEA CEREMONY
The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, Delray Beach
The Breakers, Palm Beach
Café des Beaux-Arts at the Flagler Museum, Palm Beach
The Chesterfield Palm Beach, Palm Beach
Serenity Garden Tea House & Café, West Palm Beach