QUESTION: My mother was an avid tea drinker, so she began to collect teapots. While she had some nice ones in her collection, she didn’t focus on value as much as she did on what she liked. She passed away last year, and I inherited her teapot collection. I, too, love to drink tea. I think I’d like to enhance her collection, now mine, by focusing on unique or unusual teapots, culling out the ordinary and focusing on the extraordinary. Recently, I bought an unusual teapot at a flea market. The dealer said that it was a “nightlight” teapot. I had never heard of such a thing, but she said she really didn’t know much about it. What exactly is a nightlight teapot and how does it differ from an ordinary one?
ANSWER: First, let me congratulate you on planning to enhance your mother’s teapot collection and take it as your own. Too many people who inherit someone else’s collection either sell it off or stash it away. They become the caretaker of the collection, not the curator.
I, too, never heard of a nightlight teapot until recently. Basically, it’s a bedside porcelain teapot that sits on a warming stand. The light from an oiled wick or tiny candle not only kept the tea warm but also served as a nightlight since the light from the flame flickered through the vents and through the porcelain, itself.
During the 18th century, like now, people often enjoyed sipping warm cups of tea just before retiring for the night. So bedside porcelain teapots became wedding gifts. In the days before electrical lighting, they served a dual purpose. They not only allowed people to take some sips of warm tea at bedtime but also emitted a soft diffused glow. People referred to these teapots as veilleuse-theieres.
The earliest veilleuses, used as food warmers for porridge, soup, or an invalid's drink in sick rooms or hospitals, had a bowl instead of a teapot on a stand. Later, the teapot replaced the bowl and veilleuse-theirres came into use. The French used them as a way of brewing and serving tisane, an floral or herb tea, to restless babies during the night. Not only did they offer a warm liquid for a restless infant or sick person, but also afforded a night light in the sick room long before electricity. Most were translucent, making them useful as well as ornamental.
People filled a small boat-shaped or rounded vessel known as a "godet" with nut or vegetable oil, then floated a wick on top. Not only was the porcelain translucent, it also had been tempered to withstand heat for a long period.
By 1830, veilleuses made for the wealthy began to be more ornate and decorative, with some in the form of figurines or personages and others with insignia or crests.
Between nine and twelve inches tall, some of them looked exactly like what they were—teapots seated on warriors, fine ladies poised with fans, and monks clutching wine bottles. Others had smooth facades decorated with historical and literary scenes.
Although made for 100 years, between 1750 and 1860, information about veilleuses is hard to find. Most references simply document where someone purchased them, not their place of manufacture. Most of the factories that produced them didn’t place identifying marks on the bottom, making them extremely hard to identify.
Veilleuse-théières reveal ingenuity, attention to detail, and their creators’ sense of humor. Noses of the grotesques serve as spouts, as do the upraised hands of some figurine-styled pieces. One teapot made to look like a cottage had a cat perched on the roof that served as its handle.
Because of their fragile nature and their continual use, few veilleuse-theieres have survived.
Veilleuse-theieres sometimes mimic their origins. A delicate, skylark green, fluted teapot and pedestal veilleuse, translucent as an oriental lantern, hails from Hong Kong. A brown slated “roof” teapot tops a veilleuse-theieres that, down to its French advertisements, resembles a Parisian kiosk. A white and gold laced Gothic style veilleuse-theiere recalls windows of the great French cathedrals. Other architectural veilleuse-theieres include a towering turret, a quadrangular Normandy house, and a Spanish windmill.
Veilleuses also came in the shapes of all sorts of animals. A gold encrusted Spanish pig grotesque, its snout poised to pour, displays a scroll depicting scenes of Hades. A Siamese elephant, dashing in candy striped pants and blue waistcoat, pours from his nose. A tasseled Tunisian camel rests en route, while his mistress peeks out from her curtained howdah.
Many veilleuse-theieres are figural, bearing no outward resemblance to teapots at all. Some are pure whimsey. A rosy cheeked cupid, draped in blue splendor and cradling a golden pitcher, for example, sat astride a long-haired goat. A maiden straddled a fearsome, multi-colored dolphin.
Other figurals, however, appeared more realistic. A Turkish turbaned warrior twisted his mustache while fingering twin daggers in his cummerbund. An inscrutable, mustachioed Chinese Mandarin proffered a china tea cup on high. A courtesan, enticing in gilded and ruffled petticoats, fluttered her fan. All of these, at first glance, are simply exquisite porcelain creations. Yet somewhere underneath their cunning and fanciful features, lay utilitarian teapots combined with night lights.
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