SILVER TEA ACCESSORIES
The 18th-century appetite for tea, described by a contemporary poet as the 'Sovereign Drink of Pleasure and of Health', created a range of collectable items in silver
Since the habit caught on with the middle classes in the 18th century, taking tea was as much, if not more, to do with social ritual and display as it was with quenching people's thirst.
Equipment made of fine materials such as porcelain and silver was an important and necessary part of the whole experience.
Britain's Empire grew dramatically in the second half of the 17th century. Among the spoils brought back from the new territories was tea.
Everyone wanted it and it was fabulously expensive, commanding prices equivalent to £100 per pound today.
Despite this, tea caught on with the gentry and rich merchants as part of the etiquette of genteel entertaining.
By the beginning of the 18th century, it had taken over from silk as the East India Company's most lucrative import.
A host of accessories became essential equipment. Many were made of silver.
In Georgian and Regency times, great quantities of silver were imported from the New World, bringing down its price.
Silversmiths worked relatively cheaply and it was not unusual to have pieces specially commissioned.
Tea was kept in special caddies with locks to stop servants pilfering the precious leaves.
The caddies, valuable status symbols in their own right, were kept in the drawing room where the mistress of the house could keep an eye on them and where they could impress guests.
In the 18th century, tea was served at any time of the day.
A small kettle bubbled away on a spirit lamp, ready to refill a silver teapot, which usually stood on a stand.
At first, tea was taken black. When a cup was poured, a finely perforated mote spoon was used to skim off stray leaves from the surface.
Later in the century, fashionable people began to take milk and sugar.
Jugs and bowls, spoons, tongs and nips joined the list of essential equipment.
Sugar was sold in large cones. Chunks were chipped off these in the kitchen to fill the sugar bowl.
In the drawing room, the lumps were transferred from bowl to cup with elegant, scissor-action nips.
Tongs gradually supplanted nips from around 1780.
Georgian and Regency silver is not cheap. Since it has always been valued and collected, you are extremely unlikely to pick up any bargains in antiques shops.
Silver is best bought at auctions or from specialist dealers.
Hallmarks are not necessarily complete on early silver.
This is particularly true of small, fiddly pieces like nips and tongs, which will carry only the standard and maker's marks. They are not always obvious.
Look inside the nips or inside the finger grips on tongs.
Take a book of marks with you for reference when you go out to buy. Pieces in two parts, such as a bowl with a lid, should be marked on both parts, and the marks must match.
Sometimes nips and tongs formed parts of sets with matching spoons.
Whole canteens, with caddies, spoons, nips and knives are to be found at a price. Tea sets as we know them started to be made in the 1770s.
Beware of imitations in silver and in electroplate. The best defence is to learn your subject thoroughly and to shop only with reputable dealers.
Novelty Georgian silver nips - those in the form of a stork are the best known - are fairly rare. There are, though, plenty of Victorian and modern copies.