Artist not known, Japan
1600s-1700s, Edo period
3.75 in x 2 in
Walter C. Mead Collection, 1933.5
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
This tea caddy (container) was made in Japan during the Edo period, which began in the 1600s and lasted into the 1800s. We don’t know the name of the artist who made this ceramic tea caddy, or container. From looking at the tea caddy, we do know that the artist was an expert in making small things from clay, in using a potter’s wheel, and in applying glazes. Using clay that, if not covered by a glaze, turned reddish-brown when fired, the artist first formed the shape of the caddy on a potter’s wheel. He then applied a layer of glaze. Glazes are made of a watery mixture of powdered glass and clay, and they create a shiny, glass-like appearance. Glazes are applied either with a brush or by pouring the mixture onto the item being glazed, or even dipping it into the glaze. After the glaze was applied, the caddy was placed into an extremely hot kiln, which caused the glaze to melt. This process may have also caused the glaze to drip in unexpected ways and to turn different colors. The artist cannot exactly predict how the glaze will turn out, so the end result may even surprise him. The artist topped the tea caddy with a lid carved out of elephant ivory.
What Inspired It
Tea caddies like this one are made to hold powdered green tea, called matcha [MAH-cha], and are used in Japanese tea ceremonies. Guests at a tea ceremony learn to focus their senses on the smallest details, on everything they can see, hear, feel, and taste. Doing this can clear one’s mind of distractions like the things on a to-do list or the possibility of traffic on the way home. By relaxing and paying close attention to the sounds, smells, and emotions that accompany preparing and drinking tea, the guests can feel as though they have escaped to a calmer and more peaceful place in their minds.
The artist making a tea caddy is very aware of how the caddy will be used, touched, and seen in a tea ceremony. He is partly inspired by the practical needs of the container; it must hold bright green, powdered tea and have a wide enough opening so that a bamboo scoop can be inserted to draw out enough powder for each bowl of tea being prepared. He also may want to surprise and delight the people attending the tea ceremony by making the caddy pleasant to touch and interesting to look at from all sides. The artist also probably knew the history of ceramic tea containers. He may have seen and perhaps admired older tea caddies enough to want to honor past craftsmen by following in their footsteps.
The ritual of serving tea involves a number of specific steps. The ceremony can last anywhere from twenty minutes to five hours and consists of two distinct stages, represented by the drinking of thick tea (about the consistency of white Elmer’s glue) and thin tea (about the consistency and frothiness of hot chocolate). This tea caddy was made to hold thick tea and was used during the first part of the ceremony. Both types of tea are prepared by whisking green tea powder with water, but the powder used to make thick tea is made from the tips of the newest leaves on a mature tea plant. Thin tea is made from the leaves of young tea plants.
See an example of a thin tea caddy in the Denver Art Museum’s collection.
The host chooses which tea caddy to use during the ceremony based on who is attending, the level of formality, the season, the time of day, and how the caddy will complement other utensils like the tea bowl.
When preparing for the ceremony, the host places a measured mound of powdered green tea inside the container. Once the ceremony begins, he removes the lid of the caddy and scoops tea powder into a tea bowl, blending it with water to create a bitter green tea. Thick tea is prepared in a bowl that is shared by all the guests. Each guest wipes the rim of the bowl before passing it along. After the guests have finished their tea and the host has cleaned the utensils, the guests will often examine each item, noticing its color, shape, size, glaze, and texture. The utensils are handled with extreme care and reverence because they are often very valuable.
Information about the Japanese tea ceremony can be found here.
Two examples of tea bowls in the Denver Art Museum’s collection:
The glaze changes color as you look around the caddy. There are lighter spots that run into a darker glaze. Some places have thinner glaze and some have very thick glaze. The glaze seems to run down from top to bottom and often forms very thick drips toward the bottom of the caddy.
The lid is made out of elephant ivory. Today, lids are usually made out of materials that resemble ivory. The lid should be placed on the caddy with the grain of the ivory running from front to back. After a lot of careful looking, the owner could choose which side he wanted to be the front based on which he liked the most.
On one side of the vessel there is a spot that the glaze did not cover, leaving the clay exposed.
On the bottom of the vessel, there is a ribbed pattern of concentric semicircles. These are formed when an object that is thrown on a wheel is removed from the wheel by cutting it off the wheel.
The hem of the glaze, the bottom line or edge of the glaze, goes all around the base of the container. If you unrolled the line of the hem and drew it on a flat piece of paper, the curving line would show you that the hem is uneven and varies as you turn the caddy.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- Add to the lesson by conducting your own tea ceremony, or simply serve tea. Encourage students to smell, taste and observe the properties of the tea. Have students write a Haiku about their experience.
- Discuss symbols in art. Examine the symbols of the moon or sun (such as on the wood canister lid). Have children write and create an illustration about the these symbols .
- Teach children how to make an origami box/container. See instructions here.