For as long as I can remember, a small pewter tea-pot with a jade handle and spout has been ‘part of the furniture’. So much so that in trying to place where it lived at the Mill or in later houses where I lived as a child, I really can’t decide where it was kept. I don’t remember it being used, but perhaps Libby might. It has a companion pewter jug with a lid, but that has no characters on it. It must have originally belonged to my grandfather, Harry Hillier and been brought back by him when he left China.
The pewter tea-pot came down with us to France, and as it’s such an attractive small object I have had it sitting on the bookcase in the kitchen. As old pewter was made with a proportion of lead we have never actually used it as a teapot but I’m sure it was often used for an individual pot of ‘china tea’, in the days when nobody worried about (or knew of) the danger in lead.
When we were staying at Rodenhurst Road last summer, we met a charming Chinese American academic, Jenny Huangfu Day, who was also staying there and who told me that she would be happy to translate any Chinese characters that we were curious about. During lockdown, I sent her two photos of the teapot, back and front. I hugely appreciate the care she has taken to examine it, including writing to some Sinologist colleagues to seek their views, and this is what she has told me.
It appears to be a hand-crafted pot by Zhu Shimei from the Qianlong or Daoguang period (18th or early 19th century). The inscription on one side includes a quote from The Book of Odes https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classic_of_Poetry and is as follows:
In storing the purple bamboo tea,
It holds the blue-green sweetness of the fragrance,
Bring it and take from it as much as you wish.
With our spirits unified, we head in the same direction.
An auction site lists a similar one by the same artist and some reproductions:
The inscription on the other side of the tea-pot seems to relate to the lovely sketch of the plum blossoms.
The line on the right says: "In imitation of the style of Yun Shouping" and the line on the left is the artist's style-name "Ye Quesheng" ("Born from a wild sparrow"). Yun Shouping was a famous 17th century painter and is known as one of the ‘Six Masters’ of the Qing period: see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yun_Shouping . So it looks as though Ye Quesheng’s plum blossoms were inspired by Yun's work.
Jenny finishes her email;
I love this little teapot, which is so rich with artistic and poetic allusions and can tell us much about the world of the literati-artisans of the 18th century. Isn't this just a fantastic gift that keeps giving more surprises the deeper one researches into it?