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Tea bowl

This small, hemispherical, silver tea bowl is an early example of the English obsession with all things Chinese. It was made in 1683/4 by an unidentified London silversmith in imitation of (more expensive) imported Chinese porcelain tea bowls. Like the contemporary silver wall-sconces, it has been flat-chased with ‘novel’ Chinese-inspired vignettes of Chinamen, pagodas, hoho birds and stylized scrolling foliage – a radically different aesthetic from the highly embossed dense decoration of most late seventeenth-century domestic silver. 

Whilst visually appealing, the handle-less cup is a functional disaster: silver is an excellent conductor of heat, so when filled with freshly made tea, it would quickly have become too hot to hold, let alone drink from. Consequently, silver tea bowls were a short-lived phenomenon and most were melted down, making this example a rare survival. They were replaced by porcelain tea bowls without handles or tea cups with a single handle, their precise shape and decoration varying between manufactories and constantly changing to keep up with the latest fashions. Silver was still employed at the tea-table of the well-to-do, but only for kettles, teapots, milk jugs, sugar basins and teaspoons.