This is Doctor Johnson’s Teapot, which he used himself every day. He really loved tea.
It is a piece of Jackfield pottery, a type of earthenware famous for its black lustrous lead glaze and decorations in oil paint and gilt. It is named after the village of Jackfield in Shropshire, where Richard Thursfield built a ceramics factory in 1713.
This teapot is very typical of the style. It is the customary black and the decoration painted in gold is imitation Chinese, as was the fashion of the day. The lid is decorated with golden flower sprays. There is a ‘back’ and a ‘front’ to this teapot. The back shows an ornamental table with flowers and the front a Chinese traveller. He carries a stick over his shoulder. There is not a bundle on the end but a beautiful bird, whose partner with outspread wings and flowing tail seems to be waiting for them on an elegant branch. Perhaps Johnson had fellow feeling with this little travelling figure. The rest of the teapot is filled with exuberant flowers and foliage. This is not the most elegant example of Chinoiserie (a European style of art from 17th century onward which imitates Chinese motifs), but it must have been a very lovely companion to Johnson’s passionate tea drinking.
‘I suppose no person ever enjoyed with more relish the infusion of that fragrant leaf than Johnson.’ (Boswell’s Life)
The teapot was donated to the museum in 1912 by Rev W J Houlgate, a Lichfield man who had inherited it from his parents. His mother had been the servant of a Mr Feary , who had given her the teapot as a wedding gift. Mr Feary, also a Lichfield man, had lived on Bird Street and came to own the teapot in 1794, some ten years after the death of the Doctor.
In the 18th century tea became one of the leading social drinks of the day. Around its drinking developed an array of new equipment and customs – the tea-table with teapot and cups and sugar bowls with the lady of the house presiding over a convivial gathering – just the place for Doctor Johnson.
Johnson loved tea. On the trip he took with Boswell to the Hebrides, for example, the narrative is littered with references to their tea-drinking. When Johnson was a bit tired and grumpy ‘a dish of tea, some good wheaten cakes and fresh butter did him service’ Many of us have fellow feeling with that.
But Johnson’s affection for tea was not passive. As with many newfangled things that burst upon society there were those who thought tea a very bad thing, amongst whom was Jonas Hanway (1712 -1786). In 1757 he wrote ‘An essay on tea as pernicious to health, obstructing industry and impoverishing the nation’ For him tea was the source of all evils including the weakening of male prowess and the dulling of female beauty. It led to idleness especially amongst the working classes ‘it is the curse of this nation, that the labourer and mechanic will ape the lord’.
Johnson reviewed this attack against tea in a vigorously worded article in the Literary Magazine and when Hanway, offended by the review, replied with equal force Johnson responded with the full power of his fine mind.
He said that he had drunk tea for years without ill effect; tea had nothing to do with idleness. It was simply another symptom of a time wasting society and he hadn’t noticed a lack of good hardworking labourers. As for lack of female beauty, that was the sentimental view of the older generation looking back to its youth.
Interestingly Johnson pointed out that as tea required boiled water, it was better for people who would otherwise drink contaminated water. Tea drinking might also cut down on the consumption of spirituous liquids – a point close to his heart as he himself drank tea and tried to control his intake of alcohol.
He says of himself:
‘A hardened and shameless tea drinker… whose kettle has scarcely time to cool; who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and, with tea, welcomes the morning.’
By Annemarie Powell, Birthplace Volunteer