by Jennie

What cup do you prefer for drinking tea?  My preference has always been a great big mug made from either English stoneware or English chinaware.  I remember these mugs from what we called, English workman’s cafes, where a good cup of tea was always brewed, but needed no further refinement of a fancy container.  Others turn their nose up and insist on only the finest of English bone china ware.

World famous for its tea drinking habits, England is also famous for it beautiful bone-china.  That wasn’t always the case and like the rest of Europe, England searched long and hard to replicate the renowned porcelain from China.  The long research project took centuries; starting not in England, but in the land called Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq, and involved many different countries and religions.

In the 600s AD, Muhammad’s followers, eager to spread the faith of Islam, brought Mesopotamia under the rule of a Caliph, the head of state for an Islamic community.  A gift of twenty pieces of Chinese Imperial porcelain was given to the fifth Caliph, Harun ar Rashid, who, intrigued by the beauty of the ware, its whiteness and decoration, encouraged efforts to replicate it in Mesopotamia.

The potters of Mesopotamia were successful to a point.  They developed ware that imitated the look of the porcelain, with a white background and intricate designs, but the body of the ware was quite thick and came nowhere close to the beauty of Chinese porcelain.

The secret of making ware like Chinese porcelain was still illusive, but the first efforts by the Mesopotamian potters remained at the core of the research over the next few centuries.  It followed the spread of Islam through North Africa, then on through Spain where Muhammad’s followers were eager (thankfully) to retain the arts and culture of the Iberian Peninsula.  While the rest of Europe suffered through the dark ages following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the arts and culture remained alive and flourished with the influence of a variety of cultures and religions in the peninsula.

When the European Renaissance began, the arts of Iberia were ready.  The original Mesopotamian potter’s ware, now known as Hispano-Moresque Luster Ware, continued the journey north becoming Majolica in Italy, Faience in France, Dutch tile work in Holland, and eventually, Whiteware in England.

The whole of Europe though continued trying to replicate Chinese porcelain, and finally in the 1500s, with support from the Medici family, Italian porcelain began to be made.  The German company, Meissen perfected the porcelain.  England too, developed its own Chinaware.

If you are lucky enough at February IN Day, you may be drinking tea from a bone-china teacup.  These are very delicate cups that if you hold up to the light, you can see the light shining through.  In the 1800s in England, they were prized at English afternoon tea parties.  Both women and men would dress to match the occasion and to do justice to the fine bone-china ware.

Rather, unromantically though, bone-china was developed in 1748 by Thomas Frye who lived near an abattoir (slaughterhouse) in the East end of London.   With ready access to the raw materials, he began experiments mixing animal bone-ash in with his porcelain.  The result was a gorgeous porcelain that has now been copied across the world.

You may have heard other stories of the search for the illusive Chinese porcelain.  I like this one.  After all, it ends with a good cup of tea.  What could be better?


US Library of Congress – History of Iraq

Glendale Community College, California and in particular, Robert Kibler, Professor of Ceramics

British Museum on-line

Clay and Glazes for the Potter, Second Edition, Daniel Rhodes

The Ceramic Glaze Handbook, Mark Burleson

A Potter’s Dictionary, Frank and Janet Hamer

Cushing’s Handbook, Third edition, Val Cushing

Ten Thousand Years of Pottery, Emmanuel Cooper

The New Majolica, Matthias Osterman

Making Marks, Robin Hopper

International Museum of Ceramics in Faenza on-line

Metropolitan Museum of Art on-line


Clip art –