SJ sends me photos of a lovely little architecturally scalloped wooden tea caddy, picturing a monochromatic scene of lovers. This is a technique called “en grisaille,” painted with black, white and tones of gray. Because of the gray tones, the figures mimic sculpture, creating a three-dimensional effect. This realistic modeling in painting that is meant to mimic another medium is called trompe l’oeil (fool the eye).
Painting en grisaille was most desirable in the late 18th to early 19th centuries, the age of Chinese Export Porcelain, because Chinese artists who painted on porcelain for the European market referenced the Western classical style of the era, hearkening back to Greek and Roman sculpture. Artists found Monochromatic painting in black and gray on white porcelain easier to fire, and cheaper to produce. The English at that time saw the world in black and white in the popular engravings and etchings of the late 18th to early 20th century. So SJ’s box references black and white printmaking techniques as well as those techniques used to paint Chinese porcelain.
I can date SJ’s tea caddy by the shapes that follows the furniture styles of the century. An earlier style would echo the classical straight lines and formal massing of early Georgian furniture. The second quarter 18th century shape is Rococo in the decorative arts; the bombe form predominates. By the mid-18th century, a lighter classicism takes hold of both furniture and the decorative arts, imported from France: this is the date of the subject box.
SJ’s box in its palette en grisaille also mimics the most popular medium of tea caddies – sterling silver. Not until the 19th century do we find those heavier, less graceful wooden tea boxes with zinc-lined compartments. Many of these zinc-lined boxes were crafted in dark mahogany in a sepulchral (coffin-like) shape. Almost all box collectors have such a dreary looking 19th century tea caddy.
I put a high value on SJ’s box because of its early mid 18th century date, because of its masterful en grisaille paintings, and because the three tole boxes which are still inside. Famous European watering holes are mentioned on the sides of the box, another valuable feature – because quality water determined quality tea, and in the mid 18th century perfect fresh spring water was hard to come by. This reference makes this box historically valuable.
The form is typical of the period for a tea caddy. The name caddy is taken from the Malay word “Kati,” a unit of weight for measuring tea. The earliest tea caddies were silver, made for the wealthy under the reign of George I (1714-27). Tea was a commodity, a rarity, and heavily taxed. By the middle of the 18th century, the tax rate for tea was 119 percent. Little decorated boxes held precious tealeaves, and these boxes were steadfastly locked. The major suspects for such thefts were the household staff, especially chambermaids.
The interior of SJ’s box is also painted en grisaille, divided into three sections into which fit three tin (tole) boxes fitted with little round lids. One box contained your favorite tealeaves, and if the box contained a glass or silver bowl, that held sugar (a commodity), and one other box contained perhaps a professional tea-blender’s mix of teas for guests. Thomas Twining, a name tea-drinkers will recognize today, was mixing for George I. If Mr. Twining’s tea was too expensive, you ordered Hyson (green) tea for one container and Bohey (black) tea for the other. In fact, if you have an old English tea caddy, look for the initials H & B on the tops of the lids, which stands for the types of tea.
Thus, the box itself mirrors the ceremony created culturally around the drinking of tea through the 18th and 19th centuries, something, which our less gracious era has commoditized in a much different way into the very lucrative coffeehouse business of the 21st century: you can take tea speedily on every corner of a large metropolitan city.
Thus, SJ’s box, although smaller than today’s jewelry box, contains social history (the first tea was taken in England in the very late 17th century and did not catch on for years), as well as cultural history. You will notice that the top’s central motif is a young lady holding out a bird in a cage to a young lover. This is a painterly metaphor: a bird in a cage symbolized married love! The value of SJ’s box is $2,500.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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