George Bell and Sons
These pages are inscribed with affection and esteem
These essays on the furnishing and decoration of the home appeared in the "Pall Mall Gazette" under the heading of "Wares of Autolycus," and are reprinted by perpemission of the Editor.
TEA AND ITS SERVICE
WHEN leaves fall and cold winds come, and the voice of the muffin-bell is heard in the land; when the roses are gone where the late-lingering autumn blooms soon must follow, then the red and golden hearth resumes its sway as the most important factor in daily life, and indoor comfort again is lord of all. That, preeminently, is the season of afternoon tea. On the green cedar-shaded lawn, in the cool summer parlour, the tinkle of tea-cups and the murmur of the urn are less in sympathy with the sentiment of the hour than the clink of the ice-pail and the sound of the lemon-squeezers. Comely and reviving as is the ceremony in all seasons, the true sentiment of the tea-table flowers only at its fullest in autumnal and in wintry twilights, before the candles are lit, when the firelight makes mirrors for itself of wainscoted walls and polished surfaces, and moving shadows bend and beckon from the corners in fantastic invitation to both memory and imagination at once. Even as the dead and buried roses, mourned by Gerda, forsook their places in the wise woman's garden to bloom in painted semblance the winter through upon their mistress's tall, steeple-crowned hat, it might be thought that the rosy garlands on our tea-cups and saucers had come thither in like manner to blossom in purple and red from wind-swept plea saunce and desolate parterre. But, fantasy apart, it is indisputable that a certain atmosphere of romance must always cling to an old china tea service, and not to the service alone, but to all the manifold appurtenances of its dainty equipage. An atmosphere born partly of association with a courtly age, not too remote for realization in thought, and yet sufficiently far for the enchantment of distance; partly of the obvious antithesis-the unappealing pathos, if you will-that attaches to all frail inanimate things of intimate usage that have long survived their possessors, passing from hand to hand, from-hearth to hearth, hung round with lost memories and garlanded with faded circumstance as with dead flowers. Every day that comes and goes is the day of small things, and small things have a power and a dignity of their own that only the dull may despise.
From the " tea-cup times," when tee was sold at ten shillings a pound and more, and tulip bulbs were as costly as orchids are now, to- the days of Charles Lamb and his hyson, which he was "old-fashioned enough to drink unmixed still of an afternoon," and up to the present, the practice of tea-drinking has of course varied appreciably as to hour, and perhaps a little as to manner; but such changes are as nothing compared to those that have overtaken the wherewithal of its fulfillment. From the shallow, handleless cup of almost translucent blue and white porcelain, not much deeper or larger than the chalice of a windflower, and scarcely less delicate of texture and design, to the more solid splendours of Worcester, Crown Derby, Spode, and the like; from these again to the blowsy begilded cheeks and bloated forms of early, and late, Victorian atrocities, the road is long, and the full enumeration too tedious to be entered upon here. On this head it needs only to say that good-as we shall presently see-as are some of the modern examples, there is none that does not, directly or indirectly, owe the glories of its birth and state to older models, and the more direct the debt the greater the glory.
For the older models are incomparably the finest; they excel easily in shape, colour, design, and, above all, in that nameless poetry of effect which partakes of all these excellences, and yet is definitely embodied in none; the soul, in short, that inhabits every work of art, that looks out from the canvases of Matthys Maris, and Velasquez, that sings in the lyrics from " The Princess." More elusive and manifold of aspect than Thetis herself, it shifts from one form to another, and yet is ever the same in essence, and ever to be recognized, whether dwelling in a painting that is for all time, a Grecian urn, a goblet of Cellini's craftsmanship, or even " in that world before perspective- a china tea-cup." Innumerable are the factitious sighs, mostly lyrical, that have been heaved for the snows of yester-year, but the ballad of broken china is still to sing; the irreparable breakages of the last ninety years or so, to say the least of it; the shattered sets whose remaining wreckage bears piteous witness to the grievousness of their destruction, they are all uncelebrated in song. But, although so much is lost, and with the rest Elia's "set of extraordinary old blue china (a recent purchase)," there is yet much to be glad for as regards such examples of bygone taste and skill that time, and a long succession of neat-handed Phyllises, have chanced to spare. And of the multitude, perhaps the loveliest and the best, from the purely artistic point of view, of course, is the old Oriental blue and white, with its exquisite texture, its incomparable blue, its inimitable white, that is in reality neither white, nor bluish-white, nor grey, nor pearl colour; its graceful forms, its preposterously charming designs, as impossibly sweet as a fairy tale or a pleasant dream But this preference may, after all, however in sensibly, be in some measure the outcome of an individual prepossession; and, however that may be, there are sets in other kinds of ware so good that it were unwise to dogmatize upon their comparative virtues, the more especially as in shape and capacity these last are generally closer fitted to the exigencies of modern convenience than the cherished Nankin.
To particularize. One very fine example of a Worcester tea-service is, like so much other English ware, distinctly Oriental in inspiration And here the principal charm lies in the rich and decorative qualities of colour and design: each piece is painted with alternate panels, so to speak, of white, with a patterning of dusky red flowers and green leaves; and deep, dark blue, with one conventionalized red flower placed in the centre of the panel. With this set the caddy is superseded by a graceful little tea jar, small enough to bring to mind the contemporary costliness of the fragrant leaves it was wont to contain.
Of a lighter cast of beauty is another set of Worcester, the cups handleless, and most elegantly fluted, the ground white; engirdled, with an admirable sense of spacing and proportion, by bands of rich deep blue, as rich as lapis-lazuli and darker, these bands being relieved with golden stars and ribands. While lighter still in motive is a white set, also Worcester, besprent with dusky blue flowers and slim traceries of small gold leaves and tendrils. Worcester, once more, and this time of a delight
fully dainty frivolity, is a transfer set in grisaille, wherein gaiety and versatility may be seen to reign with equal sway.
Here you have every piece tricked out with a different subject, and each more or less after "le paradis de Watteau"-ladies with hoops and powdered hair, receiving gallants with full-skirted coats and high-heeled shoes, in stately gardens; backgrounds of weeping willow, classic urn, and laughing Abigail; foregrounds of formal flower plots, frisking lap-dogs, gardening implements, and what not-all the pretty, half-prim, half-wanton affectations of the period seem gathered together to make perennial merriment within these miniature bounds.. And, if the charm of colour be missing, the spirit of old-world festas, the charm of old-world quaintness should serve to atone.
Two notable instances of tea-services decorated, and to advantage, with armorial bearings, are both old Venetian of make, the one bold in design and almost barbarously fine in the opulence of its richly-massed colour; while the other, which also boasts a groundwork of white, shows a contrasting delicacy in colour and in character.
It reposes in pleasing completeness, and its original red leather casket lined with white velvet; each elegant little vessel bearing on one side the coat of arms in varying shades of pale amethyst, and on the other a tenderly-coloured group of fruit and flowers.
So hard it were to choose between the rival attractions of at least half-a-dozen admirable makes of porcelain, that the only ideal arrangement is to possess several services. Happy is she who has - her china-closet full of them, for what can be more sincerely luxurious than the Japanesque practice of putting away one beautiful thing for a season, and taking out another whose charms, half-forgotten, take on an added potency in the recognition? Before custom shall have had the chance to stale your pleasure in the blue-flowered Spode, how well it were to substitute something different in character although no less alluring of aspect.
For such as may be fortunate enough to have the means and the disposition to ring every few months or oftener, as inclination prompts, the changes on their tea-cups-to relegate oneset to safe and honourable retirement and transfer another into daily use-there is little fear of becoming insensible to the charms of their possessions. Suppose, for example, the whim takes you for something of a daintier, more austere, beauty than the robust and candid comeliness of the old Spode service that may have graced your tea-table for the last few months, with its cobalt-blue variant on the willow-pattern motive, enriched with rims and arabesques of highly-burnished gold. Then your eye-grown accustomed to the bounteous outlines of the buxom tea-pot, generously large and broad m the beam as a Dutch fishing-boat, the correspondingly comfortable, yet by no means unshapely, squabness of sugar-bowl and cream ewer, and thus in a state to re-discover with revived enthusiasm the severer elegances of (say) a Chelsea Derby set, of Bristol pattern-would rest with accentuated complacence upon the slender proportions of the substitute, and your pleasure in the possession of both should be appreciably enhanced. If absence does not precisely make the heart grow fonder, or familiarity invariably breed contempt, it must at least be admitted that an admired object shows all the fairer after a brief period of separation, when you are brought to a fresh realization of its merits; and that aesthetic sensibilities towards the smaller appurtenances of daily life are apt by force of habit to become dulled. Doubly elegant and chaste of form and colour will seem such a service as the Chelsea Derby we have in mind-slim, almost to severity, of shape, diagonally fluted, of a white particularly pure, garlanded in virginal simplicity with light traceries of little grass-green leaves and blossoms-after a diurnal familiarity with an ampler and more ornate kind of beauty. A not unworthy successor, in its turn, to this, might be found in a Chelsea service of much refinement, the ground white, with low, pear shaped flutings alternatively white and sapphire blue, surmounted by green and golden garlands behind which dawns faintly a blurred band of amethystine pink Or, if daintiness be the order of the day, an Amstel set, primrose and white, sprigged with all manner of small delicate flowers, should be regarded with more than temporary favour; while a Hague constellation of like purpose, adorned with a sequence of subjects in the manner of Lancret; or a Dresden service decorated in pale shell-tints, with airy flights of amorini, somewhat reminiscent of Boucher's gayest meinies, might be found far from amiss in certain moods.
For quaintness, or haply for the sake of contrast, -the more especially in a country house during the shooting season-an old Berlin tea-set, painted with Bewickesque presentations of wild birds and game, most minute and careful in detail, and with some pretty qualities of colour, may serve its turn; but the much vaunted splendours of Sévres and Capo di Monte, however highly, and perhaps justly, esteemed from the collector's point of view, are not very deeply to be desired for either active service or passive decoration by those to whom true refinement of character and artistic distinction are more essential in their household vessels and ornaments than commercial, or pedantic, value.
To the majority, of course, a wide repertory of old tea-services, and to many the possession of even one-in perfect condition-is out of the question, for sufficiently obvious reasons. But although economy may have to be studied, there is yet room enough for tact and taste, and for pleasure beside, in the choosing. It is possible, for instance-that is to say, if your heart be fixed on a tea-service that bears the stamp of an earlier and more spontaneously decorative period than the present-to purchase for inconsiderable sums the still graceful survivors of what has been an ample and a beautiful set. But in such a case you must prepare to be philosophical, and content yourself with perhaps no more than four or five unblemished cups and saucers, counting yourself fortunate if tea-pot, cream-ewer, sugar-bowl, and slop-basin be found intact. It seems hardly necessary to say that cracked or chipped china- unless, in lean years, destined to make colour behind the diamond-paned doors of a dimly-placed corner cupboard-is an ill bargain. For anything approaching to practical purposes it is obviously not to be thought of.
But when the old-fashioned porcelain tea-pot, together with its usual satellites, is found in unimpeachable preservation it is very well worth having indeed. Not that the admirable effect of a combination of daintily painted china cups with the starry glitter of silver vessels should be undervalued or ignored, for it is pleasing enough in all conscience; but it is nevertheless advisable to appreciate and esteem the tea-pot that is uniform with its dependencies in material and design. In the first place, it repeats and emphasizes the usually fine note of colour struck by the minor pieces; and, in the second, it has a way of suffering most excellent tea to be made in the hidden recesses of its comely being. It has, moreover, to be remembered that many and many a silver tea equipage, intrinsically irreproachable, is so unlovely of mould as to make companionship with finely shaped cups and saucers harmoniously impossible. The dark years that are as yet such a little way behind us produced some of their most lasting memorials in such florid forms as these.
Tea-services of pure white china, very fairly good in texture, are now to be had at small cost to the buyer; and these, if not the height of the heart's desire, are at least blameless; and at most, used with fine and spotless damask, charming in quality of tone. The subtleties of one white upon another seem scarce sufficiently appreciated as yet in details of decoration. Then there are some quite passable alternatives in cheap modern Oriental wares that put no undue strain upon a slender purse, the most pleasing and unpretentious being in blue and white, while the spurious Satsuma and Kaga should be left severely alone.
As regards the modern replicas and adaptations of old models, they leave-save for the sentiment, and for certain differences in mellowness of tone that may only be remedied by time-but little to be desired. True that all antique blue-and-white pottery and porcelain must, of sheer necessity, be set aside as impossible of imitation, the quality of colour in the white alone presenting an all-sufficient obstacle; but this notwithstanding, there is available a. wide range of exceedingly charming designs, which the discriminating reproducer may revive without fear and without reproach.
Among the most remarkable of these replicas is a faithful copy of a Spode service, which attracts by its bold dignity of design and refined and splendid colour. An ultramarine ground, verging almost on purple, bears a device, very large in feeling and more than touched with Orientalism, of strange flowers and leaves, in amethysts, greens, dusky carnations, and dim white-the effect produced being much akin to those many-coloured posies of single anemones sold by. flower-hawkers m early spring. Another Spode reproduction, entirely different in character, has on a white ground three rows of tiny upright rose-stocks, as prim as prim can be, but of a sweet austerity that greatly pleases the eye.
And Spode again is a most delightful arrangement on cups and saucers, generous in size, of great full-blown cabbage-roses clustered together upon a burnished gilt ground around a central gilt arabesque. This, indeed, is a triumph of frankly florid ornament, full of vivacity and distinction. Very dainty is a rain and ruin of roses in a mist of powdered gold, a reproduction of an old Derby pattern: here the vessels are small and somewhat slenderly shaped. The mock jewelled Coalport services present a displeasing contrast to such as these. They appear as though intended for the use of Sir Gorgius Midas and his compeers, overloaded as they are with meretricious ornament, heavy with opaque and unimaginative hues, and thickly bedizened with gold. Of the many admirable reproductions after old models there is here neither time nor space to speak; their name is fortunately Legion-but among the cloud of witnesses there are two that claim especial commendation: one, a Crown Derby device, has a white bow-fluted ground, besprent with tiny dark blue cornflowers and dark green leaves; the other set is also white, but sprigged with a multitude of little yellow wild roses. Among adaptations a white bow-fluted service, bordered with small carnations and gold foliage, bears off the palm; while absolutely the best purely modern instance is a Copeland set, in white, amber, and pale green, with a most graceful and purely-coloured design of buttercups springing athwart the always elegant bow-flutings.
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