The Collector’s Guide to Buying an English Tea Set

Each year in Britain, the 21st day of April marks National Tea Day, a celebration of an iconic beverage with an arguably richer history than even wine and beer. Tea is said to have been responsible for wars won and lost, it commands respectful ceremonies in many countries, and varieties of tea, at times, have been considered more valuable than gold.

The Origins of Tea in Britain

Tea is a celebrated drink in Britain and played a large part in the development of the country. The British Empire, noting China’s bustling trade in the commodity, built its own tea industry in India that contributed to the expansion of British rule across the globe. Today, the average Brit drinks an average of 900 cups of tea per year. Although very little tea is actually grown on British shores, Britain is one of the countries most dedicated to the drink. Around such dedication have grown entire industries, including Britain’s ceramics industry, which has tea at its heart. Britain is responsible for producing some of the world’s most collectible tea sets in the market, although the British love affair also began with teaware imported from China. This was due to the fact that British ceramic production methods, which at the time focused on earthenware, were perceived as too unrefined for the tradition.

English Tea Set Production

A form of imitation porcelain called creamware (a cream-colored earthenware) emerged in the mid-1700s, though it only rose to prominence when it was refined by Josiah Wedgwood, who added kaolinite, a form of china clay, to the body and glaze. A Wedgwood hallmark still today, Josiah Wedgwood favored simplicity over the colored glazes often used at the time, and he is said to have cleared his entire warehouse of colored ware in 1766.

In 1784, factories across the United Kingdom began focusing on tea set production. At the time, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, government taxes were lowered on tea and in result, consumption rose and tea vessels grew larger. Finally, in 1791, the East India Company, the premier merchant company of the British Empire, ceased importing Chinese porcelain. This gave British manufacturers the opportunity to improve English tea set production and compete for the position of world leader in teaware.

Fine bone china was invented at the Spode factory around 1800. This offered greater durability than the British-made porcelain of the time, which had the tendency to crack upon contact with hot water, and was even more refined than the improved creamware.

Since the 19th century, the British have experimented with innovative tea set design. Teapots in particular are often used to demonstrate quirkiness and creativity, to depict figurative scenes, to evoke a sculptural form, or to create practical works of art. Although many of British history’s best-known and respected factories have succumbed to the throes of the economic climate, merged, or moved production abroad, British tea sets – old and new remain sought-after and collectible still today.

Tips for Buying Vintage Tea Sets

  1. Buy what you love. No matter what you collect, the advice from experts is always the same: buying for the sake of investment is always a risk, so only buy pieces you will want to hold onto for years to come.
  2. Now is a good time to buy. Vintage tea sets are abundant in the market, but as most British production has now ceased, and ceramic wares are easily broken, demand for teaware is likely to increase as strong examples will become more rare in the years to come.
  3. Condition will impact the purchase price. If you love a piece, it may still be worth investing in, but any chips and cracks will affect resale value.
  4. Don’t fall for looks alone. Some of the most beautiful and collectible teapots are valued for their shape over their decoration.  

English Copeland Spode ceramic oversized tea kettle. Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates (April 2018).

Teaware Terms to Know

Majolica/Maiolica

Two words often used interchangeably to indicate nineteenth-century earthenwares with lead (majolica) or tin (maiolica) glazing. These are usually vibrantly colored wares.

Soft-paste porcelain

Soft-paste porcelain requires a lower firing temperature (around 1,200 degrees) and is less durable than hard-paste porcelain. Although it is less durable, soft-paste porcelain’s fragility lends itself to the production of finer, more delicate objects.

Hard-paste porcelain

Invented in China around the 7th or 8th century, hard-paste porcelain is durable and remains common in Chinese porcelain production. It requires a higher firing temperature than soft-paste porcelain (around 1,400 degrees).

 

English Tea Set Manufacturers

Limehouse (17451748)

The Limehouse porcelain factory was one of the first English porcelain production centres based in Limehouse, East London. The factory opened in 1745 but went out of business by early 1748. It nevertheless played a crucial role in the story of British ceramics, Limehouse wares are now both rare and highly prized among collectors.

 


Chelsea (1745–1784)


One of the first soft-paste porcelain producers in the U.K., established in 1743. In 1770, the factory was sold to William Duesbury of Derby, and objects produced in the Chelsea factory were henceforth referred to as Chelsea-Derbyware. Pieces from the original Chelsea factory are particularly sought-after.


Longton Hall (1750–1760)

Another of Britain’s short-lived soft-paste porcelain manufacturers, Longton Hall produced from around 1750 to 1760.

 


Worcester/Royal Worcester (1751– )

The oldest English porcelain manufacturer still in operation. In 1862, the Worcester Porcelain Factory became known as the Worcester Royal Porcelain Company. Since 2008, the company has been owned by the Portmeirion group, and its wares are no longer produced in Worcester.

 


Lowestoft (1757–1802)

This soft-paste porcelain factory is set in the Suffolk port town of Lowestoft. Out in East Anglia, Lowestoft is a distance from the big centres of ceramic production. Nevertheless, the modest factory produced from 1757 to 1802.


Spode (1776– )

One of the most legendary British ceramic manufacturers, ceramicists at the Spode factory invented bone china. The factory operated from the town of Stoke-on-Trent until 2009, when it fell victim to the recession. Many of Spode’s famous designs feature a blue and white willow pattern, so iconic that some believe it was the first-ever English willow pattern.


Minton (1793–1980s)

Another of Stoke-on-Trent’s legendary ceramics factories, Minton china is especially well known for its majolica.