• ericawillmott79

How an 18th C everyday teacup and saucer came to be displayed as art in the National Museum of Wales

In the eighteenth century the drinking of tea led to the demand for porcelain drinking vessels. These items were cheaply mass produced in China, and their lowly status meant they were used as ballast in trading ships. To the Europeans they were everyday use, fashionable items which were consumed in vast quantities. Over two hundred years later, in the modern day, a shipwreck of the Geldermalsen was discovered by salvage hunters, and these porcelain pieces re-entered the market via Christie’s auctioneers, increasing their economic and social value. Investigating the social, cultural and economic biography of the porcelain allows the viewer to acknowledge how the cup and saucer’s career changed, allowing them to be perceived differently by the viewer over time; how they have come to the end of their life and currently reside in the museum.


In Eighteenth Century Britain the Industrial Revolution brought about many social and economic changes which created an expanding middle class. These middle classes had an increase in household income. This increase of income resulted in the upsurge of consuming superfluous goods in order to keep up appearances. The consumption of tea became extremely popular, once an expensive luxury in the seventeenth century and available only to the elite and the upper classes, it was associated with a socially civilized way of life. When it became readily available through importing such large quantities, the price made it accessible to the discerning middle classes.


(Image from Twinings)


The British middle classes created a desire for a new form of material cultural objects. They became fascinated with the mysterious, exoticism of the East and created a consumption for oriental imports, these Chinoiserie items became a widespread fashion. This resulted in the high demand for porcelain to drink their much-loved Chinese tea out of. The porcelain was advertised as “Nanking” or “Nankeen”. In truth these items were mass produced in factories in Jingdezhen who employed over one million people to meet the European demand and imported into markets in London by the Dutch East India Company.




The Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie; VOC) was a huge trading company with its global headquarters in Amsterdam. It owned many ships which traded between the Indian and Asian countries. One of those ships, the Geldermalsen, arrived in Canton (now Guangzhou) on July 21st, 1751 from Surat in India. Tea was the Geldermalsen’s ‘most important cargo’[1] and so the connoisseurs would leave the ship immediately after its arrival to visit the tea merchants and place their orders. The VOC were also interested in purchasing ordinary pieces of blue and white porcelain which was in great demand in Europe and the Canton dealers tended to stock. Dinner services and tea and coffee sets were easy to sell, and the company believed they had more to gain from ‘a low profit per piece on large quantities’[2] rather than a higher profit on smaller consignments. For the return journey to Amsterdam a layer of gravel, was poured into the bottom of the ship, followed by wood and iron, these were low profit commodities used as ballast which stabilised the ship. One-layer crates of porcelain sit on top and was also considered ballast. Although a slightly higher value commodity, the porcelain just about ‘pays for its transportation’[3]. The porcelain is the perfect flat base for the tea chests to rest, but it was also used to protect the tea in case of any leakage. Finally, chests of fine tea are the last to be loaded on.


(Image from Chinese Export)


The cargo list shows that on board the Geldermalsen were 203 porcelain chests with c239,200 pieces which cost 37,075dfl (Dutch guilders) and there were 686,997lbs of tea priced at 440,996dfl[4]. Showing just how cheap the porcelain was compared to the tea. On December 18th, 1751, after five months of hard labour the Geldermalsen is ready to leave Canton and make its return journey to Amsterdam across the dangerous South China seas. Sixteen days later, on Monday January 3rd, 1752 The Geldermalsen hit a reef at 7pm, eventually capsizing at 12.30am the next day. Of 112 people on board there were only 32 survivors, 80 seamen went down with the ship. The VOC recorded their ship and cargo as total loss of ‘nearly nine hundred thousand guilders’[5].



The Geldermalsen ship lay undiscovered until two hundred and thirty-four years later, in 1985, when Captain Mike Hatcher (Hatch) and his team began a diving expedition in the South China sea, searching for wrecks. After two months of exploring, they had found nothing. Until spotting a cannon, Hatch started to dig around it. He rose to the surface with his find, cleaned away the marine growth and found that the broken pieces were blue and white porcelain.


(Porcelain at bottom of ocean - Hatcher book)


Hatch and his team went back down to investigate the vessel. Recording the ‘archaeological data was not uppermost in Hatch’s mind’[6], however he investigated the ship methodically, digging around the hull of the ship, which was ‘the most likely spot for profitable finds’[7]. Seeing the sheer amount of porcelain that required salvaging Hatch returned to Singapore to get more equipment and barges for transportation. He took some of the porcelain with him, where a Christie’s expert confirmed it was eighteenth century. Many days were spent diving and retrieving the porcelain. In a complete turnaround it was the most expensive commodity, tea, that had protected the cheap porcelain from damage. In total Hatch retrieved over 160,000 pieces of porcelain destined for Christie’s auctioneers. At this point no one could identify the shipwreck. Christie’s called Dr Christiann Jorg, a historian at Groningen University, for his advice. Jorg claimed it could be the Geldermalsen but proof would be needed. Meanwhile Hatch visited the Dutch Government. If this ship was the Geldermalsen then it belonged to the Netherlands. Hatch struck a deal that if he could obtain proof of the ships legitimacy then the Government would get 10 per cent of any proceeds from the sale. This agreement allowed Hatch ‘some legal right to the shipwreck’[8]. Diving the waters again, he found the ships bell inscribed ‘Amsterdam 1747’ which finally determined it was the Geldermalsen.


(Christies Amsterdam chairman inspecting the bell - Hatcher Book)


Jorg visited Christie’s warehouse in Amsterdam in order to document the finds and identify the porcelain as being from the Geldermalsen.

During his research Jorg noted ‘it was a pity…Hatcher has paid little attention to a detailed registration of his finds’[9] as this would have allowed an insight into life on board and the VOC. To the archaeologist every minute detail is important, as by taking an object out of context history is lost and ‘this detracts from its value’[10]. Jorg was clearly unhappy about the salvage operation, however at the time of his writing the book Hatch promised the ‘Groningen Museum a large donation [of porcelain]’[11] which more than likely appeased him. In 1984 the museum received one of everything found on the shipwreck which totalled 170 pieces. Archaeologist George Millers’ book Second destruction of the Geldermalsen reviewed Jorg’s book and surmised that he deplored the destruction Hatcher wrought and although some archaeologists don’t have anything to do with looted artefacts, had Jorg not been able to document the wreck the information would have been ‘completely lost to future scholars’[12]. Miller believes Hatcher destroyed a significant site, exploiting the shipwreck for personal and financial gain, however he believes ‘the major force in the destruction of the Geldermalsen was Christie’s’[13].


(Stacks of China - Christies Amsterdam - Hatcher Book)


With Christie’s Amsterdam chosen as the auctioneer, the vast amounts of porcelain were transported home to its original destination. With so much porcelain to sell, Christie’s needed some creative marketing. Christie’s resurrected the brand name and called the lots “Nanking Cargo” in the hope of reassuring potential buyers, after all, ‘to the connoisseur ‘there was nothing special about the pieces from the Geldermalsen [which] were destined for everyday use’.[14] Of the 170,000 pieces of porcelain there were over 80,000 tea and coffee cups and saucers to sell, meaning almost half the haul was tea ware. On Monday April 18, 1986 Christie’s Amsterdam began its auction of the porcelain and every day ‘prices rocketed beyond their forecasts’[15] by Friday it was the turn of the 80,000 tea cups and saucers and there was worry that there wouldn’t be ‘enough buyers to absorb such a vast quantity of old china’[16]. There was no need for the concern. Due to the sheer volume of the blue and white porcelain, these variety of teacups and saucers were arranged into large sets which brought the unit price down to around £30 enabling the less affluent buyers to compete against each other to have a piece of the “Nanking cargo”. By ‘reassembling the sets’[17] we cannot be positive that they were matched correctly by Christie’s. Miller explains how Christie’s auction catalogue contained no information on the actual shipwreck and that it would not be unreasonable to suggest ‘they knew more but chose not to reveal their knowledge out of legal concerns’[18]. In 1798 the VOC went bankrupt and all their assets and liabilities went to the Batavian Republic. This government has a claim on all Dutch East India wrecks. This could result in future lawsuits and disputes over ownership of the artefacts. By providing no information on the ship Christie’s adapted the cultural heritage and the biography of the porcelain. They also prevented the Batavian Government from staking a claim on the find. Christie’s concentrated on the name “Nanking Cargo” and therefore they were able to allow the porcelain collections to re-enter the market as a commodity. The public were not aware of any ethical or legal problems. By the end of the week over ten million pounds was made, with Hatch receiving approximately four million, his team sharing two million and the Dutch Government getting ten percent.


(China in Harrods - Hatcher book)


The porcelain soon acquired another career change to its biography. With Christie’s seeking out an expanded clientele such as department stores, they repeated the consumable past. Shops, such as Harrods, began to sell the porcelain with no focus on the authentic cultural heritage and newspapers ran competitions to win items. Harrods didn’t bid at the initial sale in Amsterdam due to lack of funds, they acquired second and third hand porcelain and sold the ‘Nanking Cargo’ from a ‘simulated shipwreck in a theatrical harbour stage set’[19] in the central hall (1). This change in the porcelain’s biography caused it to become valued by a society who became obsessed with the romance of having a piece of the treasure from this long-lost ship. Prices on items allowed ‘some lucrative profit taking’[20] for Harrods, increasing the value in the marketplace. For the general public who couldn’t afford it or who felt they had missed out, the National newspaper the Daily Mail launched a ‘unique’ competition to win a piece of the Nanking Cargo. They had one hundred teacups and saucers to give away to their readers, offering them the chance to ‘discover the indescribable excitement of owning’[21] a set from the porcelain collection. This was a repeat of the eighteenth century where the porcelain was consumed for its exoticism and not its origin.

At the time of the auction there was strong opposition from Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam who boycotted the Christie’s sale ‘in protest at the lack of scientific method in recovering archaeological material’[22]. Mr Bast Kist, marine archaeologist at the museum, called on the Dutch Government to protect the salvaging of ancient marine wrecks, like they do on land, claiming that ‘history was lost, and people were merely souvenir hunting’[23]. Now we have The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) who work to improve the protection of the world’s cultural heritage. The 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage sets the principle of needing to safeguard the underwater site which entered into force in 2009. Authorisation is needed and only activities which contribute to the knowledge or enhancement of underwater heritage allowed. It is stated that any objects found must not be sold as commercial goods. This came into existence because of ‘treasure hunters and looters’[24]. The objective is that the public and tourists can enjoy access if a professional archaeologist executes works. These prohibitions have marked the underwater environment as sacred. Culture has ensured that by singularizing this commodity and pulling it out of its commodity sphere it has been sacralised and in turn this monopoly has transferred power onto additional sacralised objects. Predominantly the recommoditized Nanking was bought by the UK and Europeans. Asian countries such as Hong Kong and Singapore prefer top quality pieces, it appeared that these cheap mass-produced items weren’t appealing to them and so the Geldermalsen cargo ended up for where it was originally intended; Europe. This cultural transfer could have ensured that Europeans have the power over the artefacts to reside in Europe and now the porcelain is no longer a commodity it has reached the end of its life in the museum.


(In National Museum of Wales - taken by Erica Willmott)


Since 2003 the teacup and saucer and coffee cup and saucer have resided in the National Museum of Wales as part of a permanent display, sitting in a central position on the third shelf down in a glass display cabinet (2). The ordinary teacup is 7.5cm diameter and 3.5cm height. The teacup is white and a blue glaze with a pine tree decoration on the outside. On the rim internally is a cross hatch design which is repeated on the bottom internal rim. The saucer is also blue and white with a cross hatch design on its rim and inner rim. In the centre the picture depicts a pine tree on a promontory shaded with lines. The pine trees on both items are extremely similar but the tree on the teacup is not on a promontory, it is a possibility these are not matching as intended due to Christie’s rearrangements of sets (3). They were donated by a private collector. The corresponding label reads: ‘China, Qianlong reign. About 1751. Porcelain. From the Geldermalsen cargo, shipwrecked in 1752. Given in memory of Douglas de Vine’. The porcelain pieces were chosen by the museum to be part of the East and West – influence from Asia display due to their ‘interesting historical provenance and their contribution to the history of porcelain during the period of their production’[25]. Researching the biography of the porcelain has shown ‘a tangled mass of aesthetic, historical, and… political judgments [that] shape our attitudes to objects labelled “art’.[26]



Looking back over the porcelain’s biography we can see that in the eighteenth century it was considered as ballast for trading ships. A cheap commodity which was mass produced and sold to the middle classes with not much of a profit. The tea ware was widely available and used as everyday cups and saucers. Over two hundred years later when the porcelain was found on a shipwreck by salvage hunters, its new stage in the biography meant it re-entered the market making millions for Hatch, the salvage hunter, and Christie’s auction company who omitted important information on its heritage. A career change meant the porcelain was marketed and sold as treasure to collectors and the public with no regard to its cultural history. Alongside the porcelain’s biography it appears Hatch’s book The Nanking Cargo was written in a biographical manner to coincide with the sale of the china to counteract any argument from opposition over the financial gain he received. It explains how he was sent to an orphanage, that he was extremely poor, that he worked hard, and his life was at risk out at sea for months. By learning about Hatch’s personal life, you can’t help but think he possibly deserved this find which made him a rich man. Ethically and morally there was uproar from archaeologists as the salvaging meant the site was destroyed and its contextual history gone. They argued that Hatch was merely thinking about money. Politically the Dutch and Batavian Governments believed they owned the wreck with the former receiving a large sum of money from sale proceeds, the ethics of this is questionable. Due to new laws in place by UNESCO, underwater cultural artefacts are no longer able to become commodities, protecting the future for scholars. Regardless of personal judgements on how the porcelain arrived in Cardiff the viewer can appreciate the porcelain for both its cultural history and its biography within its context in the museum. If it was not displayed in a gallery and instead, we came across it in a collector’s home, we may only be aware of its glamourous treasure status. I believe that the porcelain’s interesting and unusual biography made up of ethical, political and economic arguments has allowed the teacup and saucer to be considered of value as art in a museum.

[1] Jorg 1986: p51 [2] Jorg 1986: p31 [3] Hatcher 1987: p88 [4] Jorg 1986: p115 [5] Jorg 1986: p48 [6] Hatcher 1987: p38 [7] Hatcher 1987: p38 [8] Hatcher 1987: p56 [9] Jorg 1986: p51 [10] Jorg 1986: p51 [11] Jorg 1986: p7 [12] Miller 1992: p125 [13] Miller 1992: p127 [14] Hatch 1987: p100 [15] Hatch 1987: p113 [16] Hatch 1987: p117 [17] Hatch 1987: p101 [18] Miller 1992: p128 [19] Stratton 1986 Sunday telegraph [20] Hatcher 1987: p136 [21] Daily Mail [London, England] 1986 [22] The Times (London, England). 2000: News: p36. [23] The Times (London, England). (Apr. 29, 2000): News: p36. [24] Guerin 2012: p96 [25] Art Enquires Museum Wales (2019) says [26] Kopytoff 1986: p67

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