Monday, 18 January 2016

A Cabinet of Collectors 6: a Trio of Traders

This hand-moulded teapot and its pair was in the collection of William Beckford,  when he died in 1845.

Chinese teapot in the shape of a musical instrument  ( a sheng)  c. 1700-20
© Victoria & Albert Museum


The Chinese had been drinking tea since before the Tang dynasty, but it was the East India Companies who developed the trade with Europe in the seventeenth century, sending fleets from their 'factories' in India to Canton, the only Chinese port open to them.


A fleet of Company ships sailing for Canton, from the Log of the Rochester, 1710
© British Library


One English trader, John Lock,  writes of his cargoes in 1701, "the goods I brought from Surat were putchuk*, olibanum, mirh, cominseed, cotton & pearle, all which renders good profit".   Cotton returned  a hundred percent, but it was a bulky cargo, and some two-thirds of the cargo was in silver dollars, which the Chinese imported in great quantities as an international currency.  His return cargo included copper, sugar, camphor, chinaware and gold.  No mention of tea, although porcelain was still being used as ballast for it, but  he may have carried very little or none, as tea was not yet a regular import.  *(an aromatic root)


Chinese portrait figure of a Western merchant, 29.5 cm. Canton workshop c. 1720-25
© Victoria & Albert Museum

This trade on the far side of the world was full of hazards, conducted in two totally alien cultures, with risky sea voyages..  Having reached China, the traders had to catch the right monsoon winds back to India, in order to connect with the ships sailing on the lengthy voyage home to their markets in Europe. They were kept waiting in the Canton estuary while intermediaries dealt with the Chinese merchants; Young Lock (who went on to become a Director of the East India Company) complains: "to purchase the forgoing commodities, are obliged to trust the merchants with most of our Mony and goods, and are often very dilatory in their dispatch".    These men were explorers and collectors as well as traders, and brought home souvenirs like this painted clay portrait figure, done during their enforced delay.  This merchant stands there with the same aplomb, as if he were in a London drawing room.  (His embroidered coat is made of the fine English wool which they hoped to sell to the Chinese, but the Chinese preferred their versatile silk robes.)

The European taste for hot beverages, tea (especially after its prohibitive taxes were slashed in 1784) and coffee, made many traders' fortunes,  including that of Quakers, John Horniman  and his son Frederick in the next century.  By 1891 Horniman & Co was reputed the largest tea company in the world.


Tea advertisement from the 1900s.

Frederick J. Horniman (1835-1906) used his trade contacts and his travels in the Far East and elsewhere to build a vast collection of natural history, anthropological and ethnographic objects, as well as rare and unusual musical instruments.  When his collection outgrew his house in Forest Hill (and chivvied by his wife), he had a purpose-built museum designed for it.   This was opened in 1901 and he donated Museum and collections, together with other property, to the London County Council for the benefit of the public.


The Horniman Museum Building, 1901, designed by C. Harrison Townsend


Our twentieth century trader, Edward Bramah (1931-2008), was both tea and coffee merchant, learning from the ground up, on tea plantations in Malawi, and coffee farms on the slopes of Kilimanjaro,  and also dealing with China.  He set up his own business, the Bramah Tea and Coffee Company, in 1966.

He was descended from Joseph Bramah, the 18th century inventor. Joseph trained as a carpenter and cabinet maker, and it is thought that making tea caddies for the costly leaf tea, inspired him to create his unpickable Bramah Locke, 'the Challenge".  It was patented in 1784 and was only beaten at the Great Exhibition of 1851, by Frank Hobbs, and it took him sixteen days to work it out.


Joseph Bramah's famous lock

Edward inherited this inventive skill.  His collection began in the1950s, particularly with early coffee-making  machines, which he dismantled in order to perfect his own design, the Bramah Coffee Filter,  and he opened his Museum of Tea and Coffee in 1992.


His famous giant teapot uses four pounds of tea 

Edward eventually sold the collection and today it is in storage, with all its novelty teapots and unique tea and coffee-making artefacts,  awaiting a new home.    Maybe some of Edward Bramah's fascinating collection could be more regularly displayed, on loan to the restaurants and bars in Southwark and the City, where our long history of the tea and coffee trades began.


© The Bramah Tea & Coffee Museum




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