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A Brown Betty and a Family Pothole: Thieves and Potters

Photo by Phillip Trey

I’ve been thinking a lot about family art lately and the many forms it can take. The objects and art our families pass on. Paintings, sculptures, tapestries, collections, depression era glasswares, special little trinkets, the plates my family only used for special occasions. The things we inherit. Heirlooms. Things both sentimental and potentially valuable.

For instance, I’ve been told that one day I’ll be getting my great grandmother’s fancy full-service china set. That, to me, is art, and something I will treasure. I’ve even thought about getting the delicate pale blue pattern on the plates tattooed on my arm, as a way to connect other tattoos I’d like to, but have yet to get. A filler pattern with a special meaning for me. Off the plate and onto the skin.

Photo by Phillip Trey

Recently though, I was gifted something new by my mother with a long family history: a little Brown Betty teapot. For those who don’t know, a Brown Betty teapot is a very on-the-nose object: it is a small brown teapot made from red clay with a dark manganese glaze. Round, with a measured spout meant to reduce spilling, and a petite lid. Simple and smaller than you might expect with an embossed logo stating it’s an “Original Staffordshire Brown Betty.”

Photo by Phillip Trey

Now, the family history comes in two parts. First, while in school for her Master’s degree in English, my mother was tasked with writing a paper on the origin of a word in the english language. The word she chose was “potholes.” Pretty random, right? Except my mother already knew the story of “potholes” after reading a history book that happened to involve our ancestors called, “The History of the Adams Family of North Staffordshire & of their Connection with the Development of the Potteries,” by Percy Walter Lewis Adams. In the book, it is shared that some of my ancestors were arrested (several times) for stealing clay out of the roads. Apparently, this wasn’t just specific to my relatives, people would dig holes in the roads for clay, and then use that clay to make ceramics, including teapots. It was the exact type of Staffordshire red clay used to make little Brown Bettys. I come from thieves and potters. Sounds very British of them.

The second part of the family connection, and why my mother gave me the teapot, was that her own mother had often talked of wanting one. An authentic one. It was part of her family history and her own predilection for all things British, a predilection she passed on to my mother, and her to me. Several times, my mother would find her at home scouring eBay for just the right one. Sadly, she never did find the one she was looking for.

A few years ago, through the power of Google, my mother found a company that still produces Brown Betty teapots by hand and bought one for herself, and later one for me as well. These may not be antique versions, but I’d call them more than fine substitutes, and a lovely reminder of someone I loved very much.

So, why are Brown Bettys popular, both past and present? Well, “By the start of the 19th century, tea drinking had spread through all levels of British society, and each British home, regardless of how modest, had its own teapot. While women in high-class drawing rooms and British nation houses served tea in Josiah Spode's new bone china teapots, the teapot of decision for ordinary people was the Brown Betty.” A boon also to the Brown Betty over the china teapots is the fact they hide tea stains. An accessible yet specific item.

Back in 2016, artist Ian McIntyre dedicated a show (and his PhD research) to the simplicity and 300 year history of the now familiar item, stating, “When we think of man-made objects in our lives and homes, those that perform their true purpose without any glitches in functionality or the need for constant intervention tend to be the ones we rarely notice. Probably because when things work well, we generally take them for granted.” The exhibition, “aims to explore not only the manufacturing techniques used, but prompts us to also consider how a ‘dedication to a material, or a design, and the refinement of a process has given rise to a classic – and not because of nostalgia, but because it’s the best at what it does.’” The discovery of McIntyre’s work is what led me from a nostalgic journey into something I viewed as art, and I found a gallery online showcasing just that. So much packed into a teapot.

Even though my teapot is new, it’s a part of a long and complicated history. It’s a reminder of my own family connections. Of my ancestry. Of my grandmother. Of my own mother. For me, it does more than brew a great cup of tea. And one day, that fancy set of my great grandmother’s China will do more than serve food for special occasions. It will help serve art as tradition.

Stay Backwords,

Phillip Trey

Check out more of Ian McIntyre's work here.

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