I have probably passed my golden teapot many times during the past decade, but never noticed it. Children choose my path through the Museum, and without the vital elements of taxidermy or moving parts, the teapot does not stand a chance.
Told that we are off to look at a golden teapot, they are mutinous. One rejects it in favour of craft activities; the other defiantly reads a book about cricket. Good, I think, at least I can commune with my object in peace.
But I don’t commune. My first view of the teapot leaves me underwhelmed. It’s precious, it’s rare, there’s fine engraving, but its shape and lines don’t appeal to me. Gold and royal coats of arms are not really my thing. Lacking any knowledge of goldsmithing, I cannot even salivate at its craftsmanship or rarity.
However, the teapot is my assigned treasure, and I have to look again. Since there is no visual connection, perhaps words and knowledge and themes will help.
The teapot was a prize at Leith Races in 1737-38. The races were held on the sands at Leith, before the docks were built; they then moved eastwards to Musselburgh, where I sometimes go the races myself. Phew, a link. My teapot and I have horseracing in common, and I can sketch mental pictures of the crowds, the races, the horses (though they must have been far heavier in 1738, to cope with running miles over wet sand).
The mental pictures brighten as I read the texts. Racing was traditionally a sport run by the gentry for the gentry (it still is, though you should now substitute ‘rich’ for ‘gentry’). But like today, its appeal stretched far beyond the people who owned the horses. While the King and the wealthy and the rising middle classes awarded each other gold teapots and other fashionable treasures at Leith Races in 1738, thousands of less socially-elevated Scots were spending the week drinking, fighting, womanising, and generally having a riotous time. Imagine the Bath of Jane Austen juxtaposed with a week-long Hearts-Hibs derby.
There’s clearly a class angle, and social change too. The goldsmith was James Ker, who later became an MP. Having bought himself an estate in Roxburghshire, he took on the grander identity of James Ker of Bughtrig. As the helpful legend in the Museum tells me, this was the age of improvement.
Horseracing, social change, class, the Enlightenment. James Ker’s teapot becomes more interesting.
Several days after first scrutinising the teapot, I belatedly realise there’s yet another story. Tea. The teapot dates from the era when Britain was falling in love with tea. When Samuel Pepys first tasted tea in 1660, it was barely known in Britain. Over the next century in Britain, it became a passion, a fashion, an addiction. There were tea taxes, tea smugglers, tea wars, and debates over its heath benefits or dangers. Half a century before the teapot was the prize at Leith Races, many people there would not have seen a teapot or tasted tea.
I still don’t really like my teapot visually, but I’m excited about the themes. Sometime the physical properties of an artwork can move you, sometimes you need a story as well.
The thousands of objects in the Museum all have their own stories. I find this humbling. If I ignore an object on the grounds that it doesn’t suit my taste, I’m missing out on stories, ideas and connections. The teapot has stirred up dozens of ideas about things I want to know more about: from the story of the winning owner Mr Carr of Northumberland and his horse Cypress, to the Scottish Enlightenment, to tea. This is why good museums are so exciting: the way they can leave you fizzing with ideas, curiosity and connections.
So, next time my children want to look at Jackie Stewart’s F1 car, or a stuffed Scottish mammal, I’ll revisit my gold teapot instead. And maybe one day they’ll agree to come with me.