China comes to Wells - a challenging repair job

by Joe White in Wells, Somerset, United Kingdom


raised so far

+ est. £227.50 Gift Aid



Will you help us conserve and display a rare and amazingly complete Chinese porcelain tea set that was used in Wells, Somerset, c.1770?

by Joe White in Wells, Somerset, United Kingdom

We're still collecting donations

On the 28th May 2022 we'd raised £960 with 15 supporters in 69 days. But as every pound matters, we're continuing to collect donations from supporters.

Will you help us conserve and put on public display a rare and amazingly complete Chinese porcelain tea set that was used in Wells in the 1770s, and recovered in pieces from Wells & Mendip Museum's garden 200 years later?

What we need to raise?

The conservation project will cost £10,900 overall. £3,000 has already be secured, and we are looking to raise the additional £7,900 needed for restoration and public display to go ahead.

1645986994_01_general_view_of_polychrome_enamel_(1).jpg(Above) General view of the main pieces of the Mandarin enamel tea set, 1770s


(Above-left) The plate from the tea set, used for serving cake or bread and butter

(Above-right) One of the saucers from the tea set


(Above) The fragments of the teapot, including part of the spout and the handle

What will the money raised be spent on?

We have asked conservator Alison Forster to clean and repair the broken pieces, putting them back together as far as is possible, so their true beauty and uniqueness can be appreciated once again.

As Alison explains, this is a challenging and painstaking task because the vessels are so finely potted and because of the damage they sustained when they were thrown away, and again when unskilled hands tried to mend them in the 1990s.

The tea set

The tea set is part of an extraordinary group of at least 155 individual items of Chinese porcelain, made for the European market between 1680 to 1800. 

Its significance was identified by ceramics specialist Dr Oliver Kent when he was cataloguing the collection as part of an Arts Council England funded project. It is so fragile that expert conservation skills are needed to stop it deteriorating further and to bring it back to a state where the public can appreciate just how special it is.


(Above-left) A general view of the blue and white Kangxi/Yongzheng wares, 1690-1740

(Above-right) This former display of the Chinese export wares in Wells & Mendip Museum shows the amazing completeness and variety of the pottery in the collection


(Above-left) Kangxi double gourd vase, 1680-1710 or earlier. It shows the calligrapher Wang Xizhi, and his son with a goose 

(Above-right) Kangxi dinner plate, one of three identical in form and finish, 1680-1730

Why is the tea set so important?

The set is special for several reasons: it tells us about the people who, 200 years ago, used to live in the house that now houses Wells & Mendip Museum – did the lady of the house entertain her fine friends to tea, using this very service? It stands out because of the quality of its manufacture and its completeness (albeit in a broken state).

1645987627_liotard,_jean-%C3%89tienne_-_still_life-_tea_set_.jpg(Above) Still Life: Tea set, 1781-83, Jean-Etienne Liotard. Oil on canvas, J Paul Getty Museum. This contemporary painting of a similar tea set  shows us what our set would have looked like when it was in use here, in Wells.


The set is made from a porcelain so fine and so thinly potted that it is almost translucent. The painted coloured ‘Mandarin’ enamel decoration is a further sign of its high status value.

1645987646_11_polychrome_enamel_tea_bowl.jpg(Above) ‘Mandarin’ enamel tea bowl, 1770s


Oliver has worked out that the broken pieces come from 18 different vessels, which, when they were whole, made up a complete tea set. It is rare for so many pieces of a set to survive together – even in a broken state.

The story of a family and a building

Our tireless researcher, Teresa Hall, has uncovered the names of the past occupants of the museum building. It is difficult to determine who bought the set and why. It is even possible it might have been acquired by Edward Spencer as part of his antiquarian collection – the building might have already housed a ‘museum’ in the early 19th century! 

Tea drinking was very fashionable in the 18th century. The tea and the vessels to make it in and to drink it from were imported from China to be used by wealthy families.  


(Above) Reproduction of a map of Wells made by William Simes in 1735. The museum building is just north of the West Front of Wells Cathedral.

How come the set was found in the museum garden?

The set was found in pieces in 1993, in a pit under the museum garden when it was being excavated by museum volunteers before the museum’s new store and meeting room were built. With it were the pieces of at least 137 more Chinese export ware vessels, dating from 1680 to 1820. 

And this was not all: the pit yielded up several thousand pieces of pottery dating from the same period. Together with other finds from other pits in the garden, we have a fascinating timeline of domestic wares through over six centuries of occupation.

Our researchers believe the Chinese pottery was thrown out when the house was remodelled in around 1820. English potteries had by then cracked the secret of making fine porcelain and the wares from China fell out of fashion.  



The excavation in the museum garden. The bulk of the Chinese export ware was found in the pit (bottom image) at the top left of the main photo (top image).

What will happen to the set once it is conserved?

The set will feature in the new displays about the history of Wells that the museum is currently busy working on. It will be a prime exhibit as it so vividly captures the taste and connectedness of a city like Wells in the late 18th century.

What other stories can the set tell?

As well as the story of the museum building, the set tells us about the manufacture and trade of Chinese export ceramics. It sheds light on the taste and habits of fashionable society in Wells in c.1860 and on the trade in such wares within Britain, once unloaded from the East Indiamen in which they were brought from China.

What will happen to the set if it is not conserved?

It will suffer further damage as the Sellotape and glue that were used to put it together in the past deteriorates: more of the corroded enamel is likely to become detached. The set will stay boxed up, in store, invisible except to researchers. 

Its story will remain untold and visitors will not have the thrill of conjuring up a picture of genteel ladies taking tea in the parlour in this house on Cathedral Green. What were they gossiping about do you think?


(Above) You can clearly see how the Sellotape, stuck across the fragile enamel, is damaging the decoration on this saucer


This project offered rewards

£30 or more

Individual Annual Membership

For anyone pledging £30 or more we would like to offer an individual annual Friends of the Museum membership. This gives museum entry for one person for one year, including free entry to paid exhibitions, invitations to selected previews and openings of museum exhibitions, free entry to Wells Natural History and Archaeological Society lectures, 10% discount on museum shop purchases, and a regular email newsletter.

£150 or more

Individual Lifetime Membership

For anyone pledging £150 or more we would like to offer a lifetime Friends of the Museum membership. This gives lifetime museum entry for one person, including free entry to paid exhibitions, invitations to selected previews and openings of museum exhibitions, free entry to Wells Natural History and Archaeological Society lectures, 10% discount on museum shop purchases, and a regular email newsletter.

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