A magnificent 18th century silver tea urn engraved with industrial pioneer Matthew Boulton’s coat of arms is Birmingham Museums Trust’s latest object of the month.
The engraving on the Boulton Family Tea Vase (1775-6) indicates it was made for Boulton’s personal use.
He – or more probably his wife, Ann – used it at Soho House, their elegant Georgian home near the Soho Road in Handsworth.
The urn becomes the fifth of a series of objects of the month the Museums Trust is unveiling through the Birmingham Post to highlight the finest civic collection in England.
It was made in the Soho Manufactory, a stone’s throw from the house. From the early 1760s the factory employed up to 1,000 workers to make fine decorative products in silver and silver plate. It was one of the most famous sites of the Industrial Revolution, and visitors – and spies – came to Birmingham from all over the world to see it.
Boulton entertained important visitors, using Soho House as a showcase for his wares. This urn may have poured tea for Nelson, or for the leading thinkers of the Lunar Society, who met to dine at Soho House by the light of the full moon.
Among his many industrial achievements was founding Birmingham's globally-respected Assay Office which is based in the Jewellery Quarter.
Museums Trust spokeswoman Abi Rogansky said: “For most of us today, making a quick cuppa is simply a matter of chucking a tea bag in a mug.
“But it was not always that easy. In the 18th century tea, coffee, hot chocolate and even sugar were expensive luxury items.
“The mistress of the house kept them locked away, safe from thieving servants, and served them to guests with style and ceremony.
“This handsome silver tea urn, standing 48cm high, is an expression of the new fashion for drinking tea. It would have made an impressive talking point at the tea table.
“The regal-looking urn hides a secret – how do you serve the boiling hot tea?
“The answer can be found in a clever piece of Georgian engineering. The bone finials topping the swag-shaped handles can be turned like a tap, and the tea poured out through the hollow bottom of the handles, forming a spout.
“And why put this effort into hidden functionality? Because it is designed to preserve the perfect symmetry of the urn – so crucial to the neo-classical style.
The urn is on display at Soho House, one of Birmingham Museums Trust’s nine venues, where visitors can discover more about Matthew Boulton, the Lunar Society, and the many magnificent objects made at Soho.
Previous objects of the month include The Sultanganj Buddha sculpture, a unique velvet hat which, according to rumour, belonged to the last Muslim ruler of Delhi, and the Smethwick Engine, the oldest working steam engine in the world.