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Tea Canister and Sugar Canister in Shagreen Box, 1753

Maker: Thomas Heming, English (London)

Medium: Silver

Box: 7 5/8 × 7 3/8 × 4 7/8 in. (19.4 × 18.7 × 12.4 cm)

Credit Line: Gift of the Decorative Arts Trust

Object Number: 2002.1a-c

Not on view

Spencer Marks, Walpole, Massachusetts, 2002

Tea, introduced into Europe from the Far East and originally valued for its medicinal qualities, became a regular part of the English diet by the early 18th century. An important ritual in fashionable circles, afternoon tea called for specialized equipment: tea table, hot water urn, teapot, cups and saucers, and spoons. Canisters were developed to hold the tea leaves and sugar. Since the service of tea was a formal, even ceremonial event, this equipment was usually decorative as well as utilitarian.


This set of silver tea and sugar canisters was made in 1753 in London by Thomas Heming, Principal Goldsmith to the King (George III) from 1760 until 1782, in the Rococo chinoiserie style that was the height of fashion. On front and back, a romanticized Chinese tea picker harvesting the tea and placing it in a wickerwork basket, is framed in an elaborate Rococo cartouche composed of asymmetrical scrolls, shells, and lion masks. On each side a stylized Asian thatched house stands beneath a palm tree. The chinoiserie motifs suggest the exotic Chinese origin of the tea served in England, and the Rococo elements convey a sense of the elegant fantasy characteristic of mid-18th-century aristocratic society.


Because tea was an expensive imported commodity subject to a high government duty, it was often stored under lock and key. These silver canisters are housed in their original fitted box covered with shagreena rough, untanned leather from the hide of a shark, seal, or horseand mounted with silver Rococo escutcheons and handle. The box is supported on silver ball-and-claw feet similar to those on furniture in the Chippendale style of the 1750s and 1760s.