Gasps, and then applause filled the room as the gavel fell at Woolley & Wallis Auctioneers in the cathedral town of Salisbury last week when an unpretentious teapot—missing its lid and with a broken handle— fetched over $800,000, courtesy of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Remarkably, the keen-eyed owner paid only $20 for the relic via an online auction two years ago.
This important porcelain teapot was made in America prior to the Boston Tea Party by South Carolina potter John Bartlam, America’s first porcelain artist. It is only the seventh recorded piece of John Bartlam’s porcelain and relates to a group of wares sold at auction in 2002. Among that group were four tea bowls which were found to match sherds excavated at Bartlam’s factory site in Cain Hoy, South Carolina. It is thought the teapot and bowls were brought to Britain by him during a visit in 1769. Two of those tea bowls were sold to American museums, another to a private collector, and the fourth was sold at Christie’s, New York, in 2013 for $146,500.
The teapot’s pattern matches the tea bowls’ style, one side illustrating two sandhill cranes beneath a tall palmetto tree (the state tree of South Carolina) beside figures in a sampan and a solitary figure in another boat. The reverse side shows a version of the Man on the Bridge pattern depicting a Chinese pagoda landscape.
John Bartlam Tea Bowls, c. 1769
In Chinese Art, cranes are commonly depicted alongside pine trees as a common birthday motif and a wish of long-life and happiness. However, as Sandhill Cranes are native to South Carolina then it is likely that the engraver of this print was used to witnessing such birds standing beneath palmetto on the banks of the Wando and adapted a Chinese design accordingly.
John Bartlam’s career began in Staffordshire, the center of the ceramics world in England. He left with his family in early 1775, possibly in some debt, to settle in South Carolina where he set up business as a potter in Cain Hoy, 10 miles north of Charlestown and 20 miles east of Summerville (where the first American-grown tea would be cultivated a century later).
South Carolina was at the time one of the wealthiest and most fashionable cities, with residents vying to have the latest and finest ceramics shipped over from England. The ritual of tea was as important to the local upper class as it was to their cousins back in Bath and London.
South Carolina was also part of the lucrative kaolin belt, which shipped white Cherokee clay by the ton to potters in the UK, including Josiah Wedgwood. In a letter to his partner, Thomas Bentley, in May 1767 Wedgwood writes, “I am informed they have the Cherok[ee clay] to a Pottwork at Charles Town”; the potter in question undoubtedly being John Bartlam.
The proximity of a supply of kaolin, the wealthy local clientele and his clear entrepreneurial spirit meant it was inevitable that Bartlam tried his hand at making porcelain to rival that being imported from England at great expense. As early as 1766, Josiah Wedgwood writes again (this time to his patron Sir William Meredith), “[we] have at this time among us an agent hiring a number of our hands for establishing new Pottworks in South Carolina: having one of our insolvent Master Potters there to conduct them”.
But by 1768 it appears that once again Bartlam was having some financial difficulties. He relocated his manufactory to Charlestown itself. But that pottery failed and closed in 1772. Fleeing debtors again, Bartlam relocated further inland to Camden.
In December of 1773, one of the seven infamous East India Company ships (the London), loaded with Chinese tea, arrived in Charlestown just as its companion vessels were making port in Boston and Philadelphia in a lead-up to the December 16 Boston Harbor rebellion, which would eventually be called “The Boston Tea Party”. However, the London’s cargo of tea was not tossed into the harbor, it was placed in the basement of Charlestown’s Custom House where it eventually molded.
Bottle kiln for porcelain in Staffordshire, England
The fear of war hung heavy over Bartlam’s new Camden pottery. The conflicted Englishman joined the South Carolina militia in 1775 and, within five years, raging armies came to his door. The Battle of Camden in August 1780 was a bitter defeat for the colonists who were nearly annihilated by Cornwallis’s army.
Bartlam then switched his allegiance back to George III and fought on the side of the Royalists. He died in 1781, possibly by being hanged for treason because of his wavering commitment to his neighbors’ fight for independence.
His wife was left a penniless refugee. She eventually returned to England where she died in 1818.
It’s fortunate that Bartlam’s tea wares have now re-appeared, not in America, but in his native England where the unusual South Carolina/Chinese motives kept them from being tossed into the rubbish bins. And his only remaining teapot is making its way home to the Met.
Read more about the history of tea in America and Great Britain in A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson, 2015 Benjamin Press.