One man’s veilleuse-théière obsession preserved in small town
Photo credit: Pat Riley
The first thing Dent Partee, docent at the Trenton Teapot Museum in Trenton, Tennessee, wants you to know is how to pronounce the name of the 527 “nightlight teapots” in the museum’s exhibit. The veilleuse-théières displayed are the world’s largest collection of these unique and remarkable works of art, created between 1740 and 1860.
In the eighteenth century, Partee explains, European ceramists began producing a device for use in sickrooms and nurseries. The veilleuse was a simple warming dish placed atop a pedestal that contained a shallow dish of whale oil. The oil would be lighted, thus heating the contents of the dish.
Ceramic artists of the time observed that the flame also shone through the pedestal’s translucent sides, creating a charming “night light” effect. The artists began producing fine porcelain decorative versions designed as containers for tea that, over time, became more elaborate and ornate. The original porous nut that had been used to soak up the oil so it could be lit was replaced by a godet, a special cup designed for the oil. Soon, these pots were being collected as works of art, appearing even in the collections of heads of state and royalty.
Because the veilleuse-théières were all cast in England, France, or Germany, from only 100 original molds, it may seem curious they all ended up in Trenton, a town of 4,200, located about 100 miles northeast of Memphis. And therein lies the tale of one man’s collecting obsession, Partee explains.
Dr. Frederick C. Freed was born in Trenton in 1889, one of 13 children of a Prussian Jewish immigrant who owned the town’s dry goods emporium. He grew up to become an obstetrician/gynecologist and practiced in New York City for 40 years. When a wealthy patient, originally from France, wanted to give the doctor a special gift, she chose a veilleuse-théière, appreciating the medical connection to its original use as a vaporizer.
To say that Dr. Freed liked this gift would be an understatement, Partee tells. The avid traveler soon began looking for veilleuse-théières wherever he went. At the height of his collecting, he actually employed “scouts” who scoured European antiques stores for his prizes.
In the early 1950s, Dr. Freed’s brother visited him in New York and asked what he planned to do with the collection that now numbered more than 600. He explained he had intended to will it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but was displeased to learn they would only display a couple of the pieces at a time. His brother suggested he instead gift the collection to his hometown and, in 1955, the doctor began sending batches of veilleuse-théières to Trenton, where they were numbered as they arrived by a Freed family member and initially displayed on shelves at Peabody High School, where Partee was teaching at the time.
In 1962, the building that would house Trenton Town Hall was constructed and included a display room specifically created for Dr. Freed’s collection. The doctor, who had kept more than 100 pieces as legacies for friends and family, paid for mirrored-glass cabinets and bullet-proof glass for the front windows, with the proviso that the pieces all be shown at the same time and always with free admission.
From traditional to “grotesque”
Partee explains that experts place the veilleuse-théières in five categories: traditional (resembling a traditional teapot), architectural (depicting buildings), personage (depicting people), grotesque (exaggerated or cartoonish), or hybrid (combining depictions, often using animals). Of the 100 original molds, the Trenton Teapot Museum has examples of 69; what makes each unique is, once they were cast from the molds, they were sent to various countries, including China and Japan, to be elaborated on and decorated. Each one may be composed of as many as eight parts, and, in some cases, parts must be removed to use the pot.
Dr. Freed’s favorite designer was Frenchman Jacob Petit and he purchased several examples of Petit’s art, which can be distinguished by the initials “JP” on them. Three of the veilleuse-théières are from the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s personal collection. Another is said to commemorate the scandalous attraction of Louis XVI to one of the young ladies of the court. Bonaparte is said to have directed the artist to depict a girl in the likeness of his paramour, and the resulting work is the only known example of veilleuse-théière portraiture.
Additional unusual pieces include the sole tempered clay pot, dating from the early 1700s and believed to be one of the oldest veilleuse-théières in existence, and, Dr. Freed’s personal favorite veilleuse-théière, “Number 263,” purchased in Lyon, France, and one of the first examples of a “thermostatic” pot, which used a glass tube instead of the godet.
Visitors to the museum, Partee says, often are astonished at the elephants, clowns, castles, cathedrals, and simply gorgeous design represented in the collection that was appraised at $8 million in 2010. Dr. Freed died in 1976 but his collection stands today as a testament to his collecting passion and prowess. It continues to be on view for free, courtesy of Dr. Freed’s generosity and the devotion of the people of Trenton.
Trenton Teapot Museum, 309 College St., Trenton, Tenn. (inside Trenton City Hall). (731) 855-2013. teapotcollection.com. Although the collection is open weeklong, calling in advance for hours is recommended.
Trenton Teapot Festival: Tea, Trot, and Tractors
April 2017 will mark the 37th incarnation of the Trenton Teapot Festival. According to Trenton Mayor Ricky Jackson, the modern weeklong event includes human-size walking teapots on parade, the Teapot Flower Show, the Trenton Teapot Trot (5K run), fireworks, and the Teapot Truck and Tractor Pull.
Each year’s festival features a different theme, chosen from one of the veilleuse-théières in the museum collection. The festival begins with a ceremonial “Lighting of the Teapots” and ends with the Grand Parade. Tea services are offered each day at Tea Time “A British Touch.”
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to see the collection and the festival at the same time,” notes Jackson, adding that more than 5,000 people attended the festival in 2016.
Trenton Teapot Festival 2017, April 24–30, Trenton, Tenn. Visit teapotcollection.com for updates on the 2017 schedule of events.
A Spot of Tennessee Tea
A visit to a Welsh hotel and The Tea Room at Harrods in London inspired Kelly Howland to open Tea Time “A British Touch” right down the street from the Teapot Museum. Located in a circa 1910 home, Tea Time specializes in English- and Irish-style tea services. Howland carries a selection of Ashbys of London and Bewley’s Irish teas, which are served with authentic shortbreads, scones, and other sweets.
The shop also sells boxed teas, along with hot pots, teapots, teaspoons, cups and saucers, and some of the foods featured in the tea services. In addition to Festival time, Howland suggests a holiday-time visit, when she provides special Christmas-themed teas, complete with Christmas pudding. Reservations throughout the year should be booked in advance.
Tea Time “A British Touch,” 517 S. College St., Trenton, Tenn. (731) 470-5047, firstname.lastname@example.org. Open 1–5 p.m. Monday–Saturday and by reservation.