The Power of Provenance

Dr Johnson’s Teapot and the Materialization of Fame

  • Stacey Pierson (Autor/in)

Identifier (Artikel)


In the British Museum collection, there is an eighteenth-century Chinese teapot that is named on its label ‘Dr Johnson’s teapot’. Evoking the famous lexicographer and tea drinker Samuel Johnson (1708-84), this teapot has been given a name that associates it with a historical celebrity and suggests an authentic provenance. While it has been known as ‘Dr Johnson’s teapot’ since the mid-nineteenth-century, provenance research demonstrates that the connection to Samuel Johnson is somewhat indirect. It also reveals the practice of what might be called ‘provenance branding’ which has a profound impact on the reception and interpretation of objects and works of art. This article explores and defines this phenomenon through the example of the British Museum teapot, tracing its history from its origins in China to several English collections and finally the British Museum. In the process, the names by which this object, and several closely related ones, has been known will be investigated with a view to revealing the strategic yet often haphazard nature of object names which are nonetheless an important yet understudied part of an object’s history. Arguing for an expanded definition of provenance, this article suggests that the names given to works of art and objects are part of a provenance nomenclature that is a potentially innovative critical tool for the interpretation of objects and the evaluation of collecting and its contexts.

Keywords: Provenance; ownership; reception; naming; authenticity


Provenance, ownership, reception, naming, authenticity