Cataloguing the Duchess’s teapot

Chinese porcelain teapot, Zhangzhou white ware, c. 1650-1670 with European silver-gilt mounts, c. 1660-1680, at Ham House (inv. no. 1139006). ©NTPL/Bill Batten

At Ham House, Surrey, there is an old and rather iconic Chinese teapot, which normally lives on a tea table in the so-called Duchess’s Private Closet. It has traditionally been called the Duchess of Lauderdale’s teapot, as it is thought to have been owned by Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Dysart and later Countess and Duchess of Lauderdale (1626-1698).

Portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale, by Sir Peter Lely, at Ham House (inv. no. 1139789). ©NTPL/John Bethell

The Duchess of Lauderdale played an important role in creating the appearance of Ham House as we can still see it today. Her husband John Maitland, 1st Duke of Lauderdale, was an intimate of Charles II and was given the powerful post of Secretary of State for Scotland. At Ham the Lauderdales created grand suites of apartments with sumptuous furnishings sourced from across Europe and even from the Far East.

Chinese porcelain vase, Zhangzhou white ware, Kangxi period (1662-1722), height 334 mm, in the British Museum, on loan from the Sir Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art (inv. no. AN569782001). ©Trustees of the British Museum

We don’t have absolute proof that the Duchess owned the teapot, but it is thought to date from about 1650-1670, so the period fits. In the past it has been variously described as ‘celadon’ or as Ge, Tongqi or Dehua ware. However, the National Trust’s ceramics adviser Patricia Ferguson recently noticed that a vase with a similar glaze in the British Museum had been recatalogued as white Zhangzhou ware.

The Duchess's Private Closet at Ham House, with the Chinese teapot on the Javanese tea table. ©NTPL/John Hammond

This is a rare type of underfired porcelain produced at the Zhangzhou kilns in Fujian province during the seventeenth century in imitation of the famous white-glazed Ding ware. Zhangzhou white wares were not generally made for export and this particular teapot must have come to Europe in the private cargo of a European merchant. At Ham House it sits on another late-seventeenth-century exotic rarity, a low Javanese table raised on a European base to serve as a tea table.

9 Responses to “Cataloguing the Duchess’s teapot”

  1. Gésbi Says:

    The Zhangzhou white ware teapot with its craquelure is a charming objet. Is there still a whiff of some fine old tea when you lift the lid? The vase is maybe even more exquisite to my way of thinking – like some rare ostrich egg. Couldn’t help but think that the Duchesse of Lauderdale looked like Elsa Lanchester, in which case the association with a slightly crazed pot seems a happy coincidence.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Gésbi, yes there is a certain resemblance (I admit I had to Google Elsa Lanchester, not being a connoisseur of mid-century cinema!), but like the actress the Duchess was considered a beauty in her youth, and clever and strong-willed with it.

    The craquelure of the teapot may have been accentuated over time because of the tea that was brewed in it. But its shiny surface (enhanced by the silver-gilt mounts) will have shimmered in the light of candles and fires, as an prop in the theatre (another Lanchester connotation, perhaps!) that was the baroque interior.

    In Chinese Ming- and Qing-period aesthetics, moreover, there were often implicit or explicit associations between curvaceous, smooth or tactile surfaces and female beauty, as Jonathan Hay outlines in his fascinating book Sensuous Surfaces (

  3. Gésbi Says:

    Thank you for pointing out this book. I’ve looked at the table of contents and it does – as you guess – seem just my cup of tea.

  4. Parnassus Says:

    What a wonderful glaze and shape to this teapot. I wonder if the spout is intact under that mounting. For old ceramic pieces I’ve seen in Taiwan, metal mountings usually were only added to conserve a damaged but valued object, but in Europe the mountings may have been intended to exalt and display an exotic treasure. They certainly add a Western aesthetic to the (at least for this object) simpler Eastern one.
    –Road to Parnassus

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes as you say European mounts on Asian porcelain usually seem intended to both enhance and Europeanise the object.

  6. visitinghousesandgardens Says:

    Last year there was a BBC documentary on Chinese porcelain that someone very very kindly recorded for me and it was facinating. If I could I would move into the Eastern porcelain galleries in the V&A so for anyone interested this is a must-see.

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks very much for that link. I saw that programme too – very interesting to learn more about the raw materials and the production processes.

  8. HRH The Duchess of State Says:

    What a wonderful story you weaved around the tea pot dahhling! Enjoyed the thought that it came as a personal belonging of one person & ended as the property connected to another for ever! How divine.

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes it would be fascinating if one could trace the early history of that teapot, but that is probably destined to remain a mystery.

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