Category: History of Tea

History of Tea manners and etiquette tea customs

Postcards from an English Tea-Room

Many of my international students have dreams of opening an English tea room. They come for my FOUR DAY TEA COURSE here in London to find out more about how they can make their tea room ‘authentic’ or ‘traditional’. It is a fascinating subject to tackle as we sort out the truth from myths.

The archive collection of postcard images on the Reginald B Tuck Postcards website, provide a wonderful snapshot of life in the early 1900s.

Five O’Clock Tea, Tuck DB Postcards, artist Henri Tenre, circa 1906

Five O’Clock Tea

Having been searching for a contemporary image of an Edwardian tea party, I stumbled across this image of a ‘Five O’Clock Tea’. The hostess is shown in her tea gown. This loose flowing dress could be worn without corsets and suitable for indoor wear. Don’t be deceived into thinking she is casually dressed – her dress, although not suitable for wear outside the home, is just as ornate and expensive as those of her guests. For entertaining in the home she provides a public display of her domestic life! Her guests are all corseted and wearing hats for outdoor wear. The hostess is serving tea to her guests and holding out a sugar lump in some tongs for one of them. On the lower shelf of the tea table, there is a cake.

A Five O’clock Tea was a social event in the home, an occasion for conversation, meeting people, seeing and being seen. The tea was the facilitator for this to take place. Food was served as a simple, light accompaniment, whether thin slices of bread and butter, biscuits or a slice of simple cake, all of which could be eaten using gloved fingers.

This postcard  provides me with a contemporary image of an Edwardian tea party .  Going through the DB Tuck Archive collection  threw up some tasty morsels of a forgotten era of genteel advertising. It illustrates how the domestic practise of tea drinking starts to leak out into the public world.

Rhodesia Tea Rooms, Exterior, 1930s?

As transport links improved in the late 19th century, day trips out of the big cities became more popular as the workers flooded out to seaside or inland picturesque resorts. Locals might supplement their income by opening up a room in their home to serve food and refreshments to guests – as always tea provides the cloak of respectability for women to eat and drink outside the family home. Look at the postcards – it is clear these are homes that have been converted.

Interior, Rhodesia Tea Rooms, Alford Surrey. Circa 1930s?

I am not quite sure what to think of the Rhodesia Tea Rooms decorated with with its  (colonial) dream of Africa on the walls. Little tables are set up for couples or families to enjoy teas and light luncheons.

The most important attraction of an english tea room

For the tea room  visitors,  the most important attraction would have been the ambience and the quality of the food. These people were not socialising with each other but coming to enjoy the location and the food – all under the cloak of respectability attached to drinking tea – the focus shifts from the social occasion to the purchased ‘experience’ – the enjoyment of well priced, good food and drink in attractive respectable surroundings.

Culloden Moor Tea Room

Three-Tier Cake Stand

One of the pictures has the three-tier cake stands displayed on the tables, an ideal receptacle for serving a variety of assorted cakes and sandwiches for each table, all produced in the domestic kitchen of the owner. Simple teas, morning coffee and light luncheons would be served, nothing complicated but simple, good-quality, home cooking.

I recommend searching out contemporary images and writings to paint a picture of authenticity – why not take part in my tea quiz and test your knowledge about English tea drinking?

Have you found an English tea room that makes you want to shout out “Wish you were here!”? If so please do contact me and let me know. If you want to learn to bake some traditional English tea room delicacies why not book for a Workshop or contact me for some advice.

History of Tea Types of Teas

Commemorating London’s Tea History

Board members of The London Tea History Association, 22nd November 2016, at Commodity Quay, St. Katherine Dock, London.

Last November, I was invited by The London Tea History Association to the unveiling of their first  commemorative plaque on Commodity Quay, St. Katherine Docks.  to mark an important location in the history of the London tea trade.  The London Tea History Association was formed in 2014 with the purpose of marking important locations of the London tea trade  before they should disappear in the rapidly changing City landscape. The St. Katherine Dock warehouses  were completed in 1826, providing storage for many of the luxury commodities flooding into London such as tea, sugar, spices etc.

Imported by the East India Company, the China teas were offloaded further downstream at the East India Docks and then transported in wagons along the newly built Commercial Road to bonded near East India House, on the site of the present Lloyd’s building.  The tea was then sold in twice yearly auctions. Once purchased by London wholesalers and dealers, tea and other precious commodities would have been stored in warehouses such as those at Commodity Quay ready for distribution up and down the river and the rest of the UK.

The East offering its riches to Britannia, Roma Spiradone, 1778. This allegorical painting, now perceived as a typical eulogy of that era to British imperial domination, was commissioned by the East India Company for the Revenue Committee Room in the East India House in Leadenhall Street. Note the Chinese case of tea and porcelain jar in the right forefront of the painting.

During the 18th and early 19th Centuries,  the popularity of tea drinking owes much to its role  in the social arena of the domestic home. An excellent example of this can be found in Cranford, Elizabeth Gaitskell, 1853. Set around 1830, tea parties play a key role in the social interactions of the respectable ladies in this small country town and exemplify the codes of genteel behaviour employed in polite society. The description of Miss Betty Barker’s tea party in Chapter 7 is a joy.

By this time the drinking of tea had become a habit of the British.  I would suggest however it is not this tea that is regarded as “British or English tea” in the present day. We have the continued desire to make money and role of Empire to thank for that.

After the East India company lost its monopoly of the ‘East India trade’ in 1833, direct Chinese trade was open to all. Demand for tea in Great Britain continued to grow, proportionate to an increasing population, with an annual consumption per capita of 1lb/450gms around 1850. Trading relations with the Chinese, never easy, became increasingly difficult. Tea  plants (categorised as Camellia Sinensis, Sinensis meaning Chinese)  were brought out of China with reluctant teams of Chinese tea growers to grow in the areas of Assam and Darjeeling in northern India,  and under East India Company rule.  Those transplanted to the Darjeeling region were cultivated successfully, the topography being similar to the tea growing provinces in China. Darjeeling teas have their own distinctive muscatel character, and have become known as the Champagne of teas. Today you can expect to pay around £50 per ib/450g for a highly prized early-season picked darjeeling that is worthy of this title.

In Assam the cultivation of the imported tea plants was less successful. However a similar indigenous plant (Camellia Sinensis Var. Assamica)  was discovered growing wild and also put under cultivation. Indian teas started to appear in very small quantities on the London tea market in the 1830s, as much a novelty as anything else. In December 1838,  Queen Victoria recorded in her diary “ ….Talked of this Assam Tea which I had tasted and thought good; …..”.

Chart demonstrating the breakdown of teas imported from China, India and Ceylon from the mid 17th Century to the end of the 19th Century. Information taken from East India Company import ledger (Tsiology: A Discourse On Tea. Being An Account of that Exotic: etc, BY A TEA DEALER, 1824, The Making of theModern British Diet, Derek J Oddy and Derek S Miller, 1976
Chart demonstrating the breakdown of teas imported from China, India and Ceylon from the mid 17th Century to the end of the 19th Century. Information taken from Tsiology: A Discourse On Tea. Being An Account of that Exotic: etc, BY A TEA DEALER, 1824,  and The Making of the Modern British Diet, Derek J Oddy and Derek S Miller, 1976.

From 1865 to 1890 imports of Empire or “British” grown teas exploded onto the London tea market. By the end of the 19th century, annual consumption per capita increased to approx 6ib/ 3kg in the UK (4 cups per day). This demand was fulfilled by the teas put under cultivation in Assam, and other parts of mainland India and Ceylon. Despite the exhortations by William Corbett in his 1822 treatise Cottage Economy, decrying the evils of tea and applauding the benefits of home brewed ale, tea supplanted beer as the staple beverage of every British home, whether the grandest palace or the meanest hovel. In addition, the resiliant Assamica tea plants were robust enough to be planted for mass production in other countries under British rule such as present-day Kenya and Malawi. Each country lends its own regional character to the tea plant, however the general character is that of the Assam plant with its tannic aftertaste. These teas poured into London to be auctioned, purchased by the British companies and frequently repackaged for export.  A British tea was born.

Lipton's Tea; advertisement 1894
Lipton’s Tea; advertisement 1894

The 20th Century saw major upheavals throughout the world. Between the two wars, from 1926 to 1933, The Empire Marketing Board pursued a large scale aggressive advertisement campaign to increase consumer purchasing of Empire produced goods.  The messaging on the posters was tailored to men and women separately in order to support the old styled imagery connected to the Empire, often with men depicted as ‘Empire Builders’ and showing women buying empire products, especially food. The advertisements attempted to stir patriotic feelings amongst citizens of the Empire.

Empire Board Advertisement, borrowed from an excellent article about Empire Board Advertisements. Click on the picture to take you through to the blog.
Empire Board Advertisement, borrowed from an excellent article about Empire Board Advertisements. Click on the picture to take you through to the blog.

British colonial life is no more.  Ownership of the ‘British’ tea trade has been taken back by the countries in which tea is produced. Whilst there was a boom in demand for tea after the second world war, by the latter part of the 20th Century the tea broking industry no longer congregated on London as the main purchasing and trading point. Newer and more modern trading techniques have taken over. Glass and steel temples to mammon have been erected as the buildings that had stored and traded tea,  plus other ‘Colonial’ commodities, have been demolished or remodelled, frequently becoming luxury apartments overlooking the River Thames.

The London Tea History Association has identified at least three other suitable locations for further plaques: The Tea Building in Shoreditch that once housed the Liptons Tea Factory in the early 20th century, the newly built Plantation Place, located on the site of Plantation House where tea auctions took place from 1952 to 1971, and at Sir John Lyon House (on Upper Thames Street), heart of the London tea trade from 1971 to 2000.

If you would like to support the work of the London Tea History Association, you can do so here. I am sure  you will agree London’s tea history is worth preserving. Please do let me know of any places you think are worthy of consideration for a plaque.

Brewing Tea History of Tea Tools and Equipment

The Bodum Assam Tea Press

Essay about the Bodum Assam Tea Press

Bodum Tea Press

A few years ago, when I was a mature student studying for my B A Illustration Degree, I wrote the following essay in 2011. Our brief was to describe a designed object in a museum collection. I chose the Bodum Assam Tea Press and I feel many of the observations still stand. I would really appreciate any comments and comparisons you may have about tea brewing implements of the past and present day.

fig-2The Bodum Assam Tea Press (fig.1) is located in the ‘Making the Modern World 1990 – 1999’ cabinet (fig. 2), Gallery 5 at the Science Museum. I find it is interesting that a teapot, which has a history going back well over a thousand years, is displayed as an innovative product of the final years of the 20th century in a museum of Science.

Is it regarded as an innovative product because of how it looks? Also, although displayed in a cabinet featuring products made in the past 25 years, does it maintain a respect for the rituals and traditions of our British tea drinking culture? And, is it an effective functional object that is relevant to life today?




The physical structure of the Bodum Assam Tea Press

The outer body of the Bodum Assam Tea Press retains the familiar fat-belly shape of a traditional tea pot (fig 3) that has long since been regarded as essential for allowing space for the leaves to brew.

It is madfig-4e of borosilicate glass, a thermal shock resistant glass consisting of silica, alumina, calcium sodium oxide and boric oxide, which was invented primarily for industrial use. In addition to the glass pot there is a removable central plastic column punctured with holes except for the bottom three centimetres, and a vacuum plunger (fig 4). When this is depressed, the contents of the sealed-off base section of central column become isolated from the liquid in the pot. It was designed Carsten Jorgensen for Bodum, the Swiss glass manufacturing company.

fig-5Because it is made of glass, the Bodum Assam Tea Press “has its own inherent ‘decoration’ – the beautiful colour of the tea seen through the glass”(a). The audience can participate in the thrill of watching the dry leaves unfurl and the colour of the liquor intensifying as it brews (fig 5).


How its design was influenced by earlier makers

It is worth noting the similarity and influence of the teapot (fig. 6), designed by Wilhelm Wagenfeld in fig-61932 for Jenaer Glaswork Schott and Gen, a revival of which was also marketed by Bodum in the early 1990s. Likewise it can be seen that Jorgensen’s Teaball teapot (fig. 7), described as being of ‘beautiful simplicity and excellent materials for everyday life’(b), is highly evocative of Marianne Brandt’s silver tea infuser (fig 8). fig-7Both endorse the influence of Modernism on Jorgensen’s work.  In addition, the clean, almost perfect spherical tea pot shape with the pared back spout reflect ‘the smooth surfaces and pfig-8recise geometric shapes associated with the International Style that continued to surface in new examples of aesthetic purity in design’(c) of the late twentieth century.



The beauty and ceremony of the Bodum Tea Press

Being made of glass, The Bodum Assam Tea Press fulfils our fascination with the visual aspects of tea brewing whilst the ‘engineered’ look of the central perforated brewing chamber intimates a forthcoming sense of theatre and the ceremony of brewing tea.

Picture 643

This sense of ceremony was highly important when tea was first arrived in Europe and England in the middle of the seventeenth century. It was a highly expensive and sought-after luxury enjoyed only by the fashionable rich elite strata of society. You can still see contemporary portraits (fig 9, right) of families drinking tea.

These paintings were an important indicator of status and high fashion. The expensive tea paraphernalia: tea pot, sugar bowl, kettle, slop bowl, and delicate tiny tea cups, often made of silver, delicate porcelain and later bone china, were equally important for the sense of occasion, the tea often only being drunk perhaps once or twice a week.


Social status or intellectual prowess?

Today the emphasis of the ceremony has shifted from the social status of the hostess pouring the tea, to the intellectual status of the teapot owner. His ownership signifies his superior knowledge of high quality (and no doubt expensive) tea leaves. The contents of the pot are on display, indicating a high quality leaf and quite unlike the opaque bag containing an unknown, invisible tea dust (figs 10 & 11) that is consumed by more than 90% of the UK’s black tea drinking population.



We then come to the functionality…

The Bodum Assam Tea Press’s most prominent feature is the central filter system. In a comparison about tea pots, Robin Harrison, the then chairman of the Tea Brokers’ Association and director of Thompson, Lloyd & Ewart tea brokers, said: “The ability to isolate the tea leaves from the liquor easily was a serious advantage over the others (teapots). It prevented the tea stewing”(d).

Another benefit of this teapot is its lightness and its strength, both features being due to being made of glass. With its 1.5 litre capacity it is possible to make a large quantity of tea that can sit until required without stewing. The full pot can also be lifted with ease using one hand by the person pouring the tea. With the transition of the twentieth century we no longer embrace the ‘Victorian values of display’ and when ‘the availability of cheap servants enabled formal rituals of eating and organised leisure to develop in the home’(e). The pot is designed to hold a high volume of tea thus eliminating the need to go back and forth to the kettle to make a new brew.

The one area of functionality that Jorgensen did not improve in terms of efficiency was the cleaning after use. We no longer have the cheap servants and ‘someone’ has to empty the leaves out of the narrow chamber, a fiddly exercise that uses copious amounts of water to rinse them out and clog up the sink drain because , after use the leaves are no longer controlled, the brewing function being over. I find this too onerous for everyday use. Perhaps here we have a case of style over function.

In conclusion …..

Jorgensen has created a product that has strong visual intrigue and also respects the importance of brewing techniques. I feel it has been designed by a man for men and certainly to this end you can find it in John Lewis and Selfridges department stores costing between thirty to fifty pounds (depending on the materials used for the internal filter column). It is one of those household products that are ‘not only functional but pieces of sculpture – true objects of desire’(f). It will probably sit alongside a Philippe Stark orange squeezer and Nespresso coffee maker.

Sadly I fear the desire of a cup of delicious tea is limited. Society is now driven by the need for instant gratification, which a tea bag provides; instant colour in the cup and the flavour is almost irrelevant. The art of making good tea is being forgotten and is no reflection on the Bodum Assam Tea Press. It is down to our inability to wait for a mere four minutes to create the perfect brew.

Do you have any questions about the Bodum Assam Tea Press or anything else around the use of tea pots today? Perhaps you have other questions that relate to English tea drinking culture, both past and present? Please let me know. Every question sets me off on another quest!



Picture descriptions:
Fig. 1. Bodum Assam Tea Press, courtesy of the Science Museum Picture Library, London.

Fig. 2. Bodum Assam Tea Press in the cabinet entitled Making the modern World 1990 – 1999, Gallery 5, Science Museum, London.
Fig. 3. Brown Betty teapot.
Fig. 4. Bodum Assam Tea Press. Picture courtesy of the Science Museum.
Fig. 5. Bodum Assam Tea Press. Filled with tea to illustrate the colour change as it brews.
Fig. 6. Image of tea pot manufactured by Jenaer Glaswerke Schott & Gen, 1932. Designer: Wilhelm Wagenfeld. Materials: Borosilicate Glass.
Fig. 7. Assam Teaball tea pot by Bodum 1998. Stainless steel, Bronze and Plastic. 1.5 litre capacity tea pot for use with loose tea leaves, made in Germany, designed by Carsten Jorgensen. Image from Power House Museum Collection, Sydney, Australia.
Fig. 8. Silver and Ebony tea infuser. Designer Marianne Brandt, 1924. British Museum London. Twentieth Century Gallery.
Fig. 9. The Tea Party, early 18th century. This painting attributed to Richard Collins, hangs in the Goldsmiths’ Hall, London.
Fig 10. Dry tea leaves: Loose leaf early season darjeeling leaves on the left. Contents of darjeeling teabag on right.
Fig. 11. Wet tea leaves after brewing: Loose leaf early season darjeeling on the left, the leaf is clear to see having now unfurled. On the right we have the brewed teabag leaves, difficult to identify as being tea leaves.

Primary Sources:
– Science Museum, London. Ground Floor, Gallery 5, cabinet entitled “Making the Modern World 1990 – 1999”

– John Lewis Department Store.
– British Museum.

Secondary Sources and footnotes:
(a) Heath, Adrian, Heath, Ditte, Lund Jensen, Aage, 300 Years of Industrial Design, Function, Form, Technique 1700 – 2000, Herbert Press, London 2000. p261.
(b) Production notes, Teaball teapot, Powerhouse Museum Collection, Sydney, Australia.
(c) Raizman, David, History of Modern Design, Laurence King, London 2003. Design in Context: An Act of Balance p364.
(d) Metzstein,Ruth, One for the Pot, How do new types of teapot compare with the round-bellied pot our grandmothers used? Our panel finds out. Independent on Sunday, 3rd September 1995.
(e) & (f) McDermott, Catherine, Twentieth Century Design, Design Museum, Carlton, London 1997.

History of Tea

Miss Pusseycat’s Tea Party

Aunty Mavor's The Cat's Tea Party
Aunt Mavor’s Picture Books for little readers:  The Cat’s Tea-Party

Much of the past year has been spent in the British Library for my research  to answer a frequently asked question; “When did the ‘traditional, quintessentially British meal, Afternoon Tea’ commence”? I have used my words carefully here as these adjectives seem to be used everywhere to describe this meal.

What my journey has uncovered:

This quest has been far more circuitous than I anticipated and along the way I have found some fabulous curiosities, one of which is the series of Aunt Mavor educational books for children. These were published in the middle of the 19th century for children to practise their reading skills. I found, The Cat’s Tea Party a rather quaint delight.

Aunt Mavor's The Cat's Tea Party , pg 1 & 2
Aunt Mavor’s The Cat’s Tea Party , pages 1 & 2

Elderly Miss Tabitha Pusseycat invites her friends to a tea party. Her footman, Jackoo the monkey delivers the invitation cards (page 1 above).  The guests are described in detail, gently reminding us of the English preoccupation with social standing (see page 2 above and 3 and 4 below).

Aunt Mavor's The Cat's Tea Party , pg 3 & 4
Aunt Mavor’s The Cat’s Tea Party , page 3 & 4

What food was served?  

Miss Pusseycat had bought “six pennyworth of muffins, two twopenny tea-cakes, and three pennyworth of shrimps, by way of a savoury”. There is also mention of toast (made by Jackoo) and bread and butter (handed round by Captain Black) – see page 5 below.

Aunt Mavor's The Cat's Tea Party , pg 5 & 6
Aunt Mavor’s The Cat’s Tea Party , pg 5 & 6

In terms of drink, Miss Tabitha carries out her important duty as hostess of making and pouring the tea.  Jackoo can be seen handing around some wine cup or similar alcoholic drink whilst Miss Velvet Purr is singing.

The main focus of the story is the description of the party and the protagonists therein. They all have an opportunity to dress up and demonstrate their social skills, their genteelness and their polite behaviour.  Yet it is casual enough for Captain Black to say he would “just drop in too, and take a cup (of tea) with them”. The form of the party is described; eating first and then some singing, tricks and parlour games. As night falls they have all become very merry and the guests go off into the night having had a good time together (see pages 7 and 8 below).

Aunt Mavor's The Cat's Tea Party , pg 7 & 8
Aunt Mavor’s The Cat’s Tea Party , page 7 & 8

What tea might Miss Tabitha be serving?

Newby Teas Safari Caddy - Lapsang Souchong
Newby’s Lapsang Souchong

This book was published in the early 1860s at which time China teas still dominated sales in London (95.6% of tea sold in London in 1866 was from China). Miss Tabitha might have been very adventurous with her tea and could easily have offered “China or Indian?”.  

This habit of serving two teas still continued very much into my lifetime. The China tea would be served in a porcelain or china tea pot and the Indian tea could be served in a silver pot.

To get an idea of the contrast,  I would recommend Newby’s Safari Lapsang Souchong  and Newby’s Select Estate Assam.

Newby's Loose Leaf Carton - Assam
Newby’s Loose Leaf Assam

These two teas provide an example of the distinctive regional contrasts: the characteristically lighter China tea (Camellia sinensis var: sinensis and the more full bodied Assam (Camelia sinsensis var: Assamica).

The Newby Assam is a revelation. It has a very strong rounded flavour in the mouth but, because the leaves are what I call early season leaves, they lack the tannic bitterness that has become so familiar with the bulk produced teas.

I think Miss Tabitha would have been very happy to offer these teas to her guests.

The term ‘Afternoon Tea’ is not mentioned in the story

The question arising in my mind is we might do well to clarify what we understand by the term ‘Afternoon Tea’ and how does this differ from a ‘Tea Party’?

Until the end of the 19th century,  Breakfast and Dinner were the two important meals of the day. These were about sustenance with the focus being on the food.  Any other form of private social gathering, however large or small, seemed to be called a Tea Party.

The focus of the tea party was to provide an arena of sociability to which guests were invited to drink tea. Alongside this social tea-drinking ceremony, food was served that complemented the drink and was in keeping with the delicate tea paraphernalia.

Even until the early 20th century it was regarded as injurious to health not to have something to eat alongside the tea. If you look closely at contemporary paintings of people grouped around the tea table from the early 1700s, a plate of bread and butter or hot buttered and toasted muffins will usually be displayed. The tea table was initially the public stage of the private home and where both domestic and business interaction would take place. It is the sociability of the tea drinking that has continued to be carried forward and embraced for any ‘light’ entertaining.

The tea party might be a small group invited to drink tea after dinner (served in the early afternoon)  in the 18th century to a large reception or tea dance in the latter part of the 19th century. The food served was light and delicate and the intricacy depended on how much you wished to impress your guests.  Liquid refreshments would include tea, coffee, wines etc.

What ‘Tea’ means to me…

For me, ‘Tea’ is a fairly fluid meal that embraces a number of different incarnations that have evolved for various occasions . For example the descriptions ‘Cream Tea’ or ‘High Tea’  provide a distinction to the food served or a Tea Dance tells you about the type of entertainment.  It goes without saying,  if you are English that these are all served in the afternoon – there is no need for the prefix ‘Afternoon’ as there is never any question that this would be served at any time other except after noon.

My view of the term ‘Afternoon Tea’

Intercontinental Afternoon TeaIn my view, what we know as ‘Afternoon Tea’ is a (late) 20th century creation that has evolved out of hotels and tea rooms. The three tier cake stand has become its symbol and embraces both a Cream Tea (a rustic farmhouse meal) and the delicate finger food of a Tea Party. The prefix has been attached to clarify what is being offered and the focus has been transferred from the tea-making paraphernalia to the food being presented by the pastry chef.

It is a modern luxury meal served  outside the home (much like in the picture of me above at the Intercontinental Hotel reviewing one of their Afternoon Teas).

It is a wonderful experience and a far cry from Miss Tabitha’s tea party. For me,  her tea party, held in the afternoon really is ‘traditional’ and ‘quintessentially English’.

Further Reading:

 Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Ward Locke. Various editions published 1870s to 1890s.

The Making of the Modern British Diet, Derek J Oddy, Derek J Miller,  Croom Helm London, 1976

Aunt Mavor’s picture books for little readers, George Routledge, London

The Gentleman’s daughter, Women’s Lives in Georgian England, Amanda Vickery, Yale University Press, 1999

Brewing Tea History of Tea Tools and Equipment Types of Teas

Captivated by Jean-Etienne Liotard’s ‘Still Life: Tea Set’

Tea making paraphernalia

Jean-Etienne Liotard - Still Life Tea Set
Still Life: Tea Set,  1781-1783,  Jean-Etienne Leotard (Swiss, 1702-1789), Oil on canvas mounted on board. J Paul Getty Museum, Getty Centre, Museum South Pavilion, Gallery S203.  

I have quite fallen in love with this painting, which I only discovered recently in my continual quest to clarify the question,  ‘How and why is tea regarded as an English drink?’ For me this picture oozes sensuality that embodies the mystery and magic of Cathay, the country from which the tea has travelled. I just want to touch the delicately decorated porcelain and know more about the tea party that has just taken place.

What is it that we see in this picture?

We have a painted tole tray placed on a table. On the tray, the porcelain is decorated in the Chinese style (chinoiserie). There is a round bellied tea pot, a tea caddy, a lidded jug (either for milk or hot water), a bowl containing lumps of sugar, a plate containing some bread and butter, six tea bowls and saucers, and a large slop bowl into which any spent leaves can be placed. Each tea bowl and saucer has its own silver spoon and and there is a pair of silver sugar tongs sitting on the sugar bowl  to serve sugar into each cup.

What can I tell, just from looking at what is on display?

The delicate porcelain is likely to be European made and painted with what was perceived as Chinese imagery and fuelling our image of Cathay, “..… a continent of immeasurable extent lying just beyond the eastern confines of the known world. Of this mysterious and charming land, poets are the only historians and porcelain painters the most reliable topographers. …..  Even if creating the delicate porcelain in ‘the known world’ , the magical exoticism of the East was still highly aspirational.

The delicate pale colour of the tea is worth noting; a delicate Chinese tea, possibly green or oolong. It looks a delicate elixir that I long to taste. The richly dark tea that is now regarded as being English tea is really Indian or Ceylon in origin and did not appear in Europe before the 1840s and only exceeded the  volume  of China tea sales by the 1890s.

The tea bowls have no handles and, as far I can see and would expect, the saucers have no indent shape for the cup. The European tea sets of this period were likely to be made in sets of twelve tea bowls (that later had a handle attached), twelve coffee cans and twelve saucers that could be used for either. It was not anticipated that tea and coffee would be served at the same time. **

The plate of bread and butter is another point of interest. I have found this bread and butter plate appearing in paintings relating to tea drinking as early as 1720 and, having read numerous Nineteenth Century housekeeping and cookery books, there is evidence that suggests that bread and butter was served alongside tea as to drink tea without any food might be injurious to health. I have found we English were slightly obsessed with bread and butter, serving this alongside sandwiches or toast, muffins or tea cakes! But that is a topic for a blog post all on its own.

Do we know anything about the tea party guests?

This picture depicts the end of the party – there is a general sense of disorder and mess however there is also a display of (English) tea drinking etiquette of the period. Some cups have been turned upside down or alternatively the spoons have been placed in the tea bowl. These actions both indicate that the guest no longer wish to be served any more tea – they know how to demonstrate this to their host without either person having to say anything. Even though no people are in the picture the owner of the picture would have known the messages being transmitted; sophistication, refinement and knowledge of polite behaviour.

How can we relate this to today’s drinking etiquette?

There are still echoes of this opaque behaviour today. You wait until your hostess offers you the tea (or the second cup of tea). If she forgets to serve you (people could sit, not saying a word until the hostess notices her error) it would almost be impolite to highlight her ‘impolite’ behaviour. Being direct is not the English way – rituals are played out with coded behaviour such as turning the cup upside down or putting the spoon within the cup. In the same way, if someone offers you something on the tea table such as the jam or some milk, make sure that you offer it back to them – their offer to you might be an indirect request.

What tea should you consider drinking to capture the magic of this picture?

Newby's 100g Gourmet Caddy - Prime DarjeelingMy modern day favourite would be a delicate darjeeling. I recommend Newby Teas Gourmet Darjeeling (pictured right). I like the fact this mainly a second flush Darjeeling which almost has more flavour than a first but if it is an early season picking then you get the very delicate Muscatel taste. Newby is what I call a risk taker in the world of tea in that they trust their judgement in finding you good teas rather than relying on the latest tea selling trends – most tea companies now are selling early season single estate first flush Darjeelings and sometimes these can be a little thin on flavour.

The Newby Prime Gourmet tea is not cheap at £48 for 100grams (at time of writing) however it is good value. It comes in a caddy and is vacuum packed sealed for freshness.

I brewed the Newby Prime Darjeeling tea using water off the boil, around 90 degrees (although technically this is classed as a black tea, and usually boiling water is recommend, this would just scorch the very delicate leaves). Just a glorious nectar-like flavour and I can visualise the taste of when looking at Jean-Etienne Liotard’s painting.

I  offer tours around the Victoria and Albert Museum to show how Chinoiserie and tea, the drink of Cathay became embedded in British life – I’d love you to join me if this is something you would like to learn more about.

Chinoiserie, The Vision of Cathay, Honour, Hugh, 1973, John Murray, London, p5.                                 ** A Cup of Tea, An Afternoon Anthology of Fine China and Tea Traditions, Geraldine Holt, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1991, p16.

History of Tea

Taking Tea: Minding Your Manners

Tea Manners and etiquette

I find I am constantly asked about the etiquette of taking afternoon tea. Many visitors to the UK have a perception it is a meal to be taken along with a dose of ‘best behaviour’ – that we should sit up straight, dress elegantly and exude an air of refinement. There’s a sense of being on display to the world and our behaviour is being judged. But all we are doing is having a cup of tea and a cake, there’s nothing fancy about it, is there? Actually, there is. To understand the custom, we need to go back a few centuries…

Tea Drinking Takes Off

In a very brief précis, tea drinking became all the rage in Great Britain in the early 18th century. It was a time of change, when the Industrial Revolution was taking off – a period that spanned more than 150 years.

Tea had an increasingly important role to play in the lives of the emerging wealthy urban ‘middling’ classes. Up until this time, wealth was mainly derived from and held in the hands of the small elite of (predominantly aristocratic) landowners. With the business boom of the 17th and 18th centuries – along with new scientific advances and access to coal fuelling industrial expansion – the distribution of wealth shifted to the rapidly growing cities. A ‘nouveau riche’ urban middling class began to emerge who emulated the fashions of the monied landed gentry and aristocracy.

Keeping Up With The Joneses

This newly rich group desired opportunities to behave in public in a polite, genteel manner and drinking tea became a wonderful way to demonstrate this. Mothers would train their daughters in the art of the tea ceremony. We may laugh now, especially when we think of the present day teabag being dunked in a mug, but this social custom was steeped in importance. The customs around drinking tea provided a means to show the were good enough to mix with old money whilst also elevating themselves above the ranks from which they had come. Think of it like the modern day equivalent of having the latest iPhone 6 – there is that element of ‘being in the know’.

Take a look at Hogarth’s ‘The Harlot’s Progress’ series of paintings from 1735 (pictured below). Despite the subject, Moll, falling into moral ruin as she sells her body, she is still drinking tea to maintain an air of genteelness. The tea paraphernalia decreases in quality as her circumstances decline, but it shows how tea – despite its expense at the time – was such an easy way to demonstrate polite elegance, whoever you were. All you needed were china cups and a pinch of tea.

Harlot's Progress
Harlot’s Progress – picture 1
Harlot's progress - picture 2
Harlot’s Progress – Picture 2
Harlot's progress
Notice the fine china crashing to the floor, the first steps to ruin.
Harlot progress
Harlot’s progress – picture 3
Harlot's progress
Still maintaining appearances, tea is served on a simple table.
harlots progress
Harlot’s Progress – picture 4
Harlot's progress
Harlot’s progress – Picture 5
Harlot's progress
The crude stool has been kicked over and the tea paraphernalia smashed.
Harlot's progress
Harlot’s progress – Picture 6

Shall I Be Mother?

I think taking tea still has an air of gentility or genteelness about it, which has been passed down through the ages, from the early Georgians, to the popularity of serving afternoon tea in the late 19th century – another period of social change and a growing middle classes.

Etiquette still has a role to play today. If I were visiting someone in their home for tea, for example, I’d happily help myself to food on the table. I would never dream of pouring tea from my host’s teapot, though. It could be seen as a mark of disrespect. Similarly, when out for tea in an hotel or cafe, we often use the expression “Shall I be Mother?” One person takes on the ceremony of pouring the tea.

I recently saw ‘Charles III’ in London’s West End and I cringed a little when he said, “Shall I be Mother?” to a visiting minister. There was no need to say it, he was already the host, but maybe that is just me – I am picky when it comes to taking tea and minding your manners!

You can learn more about tea customs, tea tasting and afternoon tea at one of my workshops or demonstrations. If you would like to join me for the special event at the Swan at Shakespeare’s Globe on 26 April – then use the code SCONES to get a 15% discount because you are one of my readers.

Special Tea Tasting Masterclass at the Swan at Shakespeare's Globe

Tea Tasting Tour of the V& A

History of Tea Reviews

Masterpiece London 2014 | Art, Antiques, Design – My Review

Masterpiece London

My lovely friend, Charlotte Howard, invited me to join her to see Masterpiece 2014, a rather amazing and professionally presented exhibition of Art, Antiques and Design that took place in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. It had that quiet opulence of soft beige carpets; our feet sank into it as we walked around.

There were some really stunning pieces on display and I felt a surge of thrilled excitement on seeing some fabulous chinoiserie pieces, just because it is so much in my mind with my newly devised History of Tea Tour at the Victoria & Albert Museum. (Find out more about the personalised tours here.)

I was really taken with some mirrors (or girandoles) and two delicate chinoiserie cabinets on thePagoda Girandoles Apter Fredericks stand and so enjoy seeing this influence from China – the mysterious and exotic country from which tea originated. It was not just tea that captured the imagination of the rich Europeans in the 17th and 18th century that resulted in this delicate liquor becoming Great Britain’s national drink. It was the overall sheer exoticism of items arriving from the land known as Cathay that really intrigued and stuck in our imagination.

Why should this be? I feel it is partly down to ‘less is more.’

During the 14th and 15th centuries, China had closed its borders to the barbarians of Europe with only a few travellers such as Marco Polo returning with information. No-one could check if these returning stories were true; so those about the great beauty and infinite luxuries of this far off land were greatly embellished and even fabricated. Perhaps this excerpt from Chinoiserie, The Vision of Cathay, by Hugh Honour aptly describes it?

“Cathay is, or rather was, a continent of immeasurable extent lying just beyond the eastern confines of the known world. Of this mysterious and charming land, poets are the only historians and porcelain painters the most reliable topographers. They alone can give an adequate impression of the beauty of the landscape with its craggy snow-capped mountain ranges and its verdant plains sprinkled with cities of dreaming pagodas and intersected by meandering rivers whose limpid waters bear whole fleets of delicately wrought junks, all-a flutter with bedraggoned pennants and laden with precious cargoes of jade, porcelain, samite, silk, green ginger, and delicately scented teas.”

“Besides their banks the palm and weeping willow flourish amidst phoenix-tail bamboos and a proliferation of exotic flora. Giant flowers abound here: chrysanthemums which tower above the men who tend them, paeonies which dwarf the birds nesting in their branches, and convolvulus whose blossoms serve as hats, as parasols, and even, on occasion, as the roofs of huts. Indeed the natural landscape is so beautiful that when laying out their gardens, the cathaians could desire no more than to reproduce it on a miniature scale, with paths serpenting round hillocks of artificial rock-work, sinuous rills, and forests of tiny gnarled trees.”

“The fauna is no less extraordinary. Huge and fiery dragons lurk in every mountain cave; gaudy birds with rainbow-hued plumage swoop over the plains; butterflies the size of puffins hover round the pendant blooms of Wisteria sinensis; and diaphanous-tailed goldfish play amidst the water-lilies and chrysolite rocks of stream and pond.”

Can you imagine the excitement as more and more items flowed from this continent ‘lying just beyond the confines of the known world’?

Nothing previously known could compare with the exoticism of hand painted wallpapers, lacquered and gilded furniture, woven silks, carpets, chintzes, delicate porcelain and of course the highly prized tea.

In time many of these luxury goods were to be manufactured throughout Europe as our native Painted Jug Vasecraftsmen emulated the skills and styles of the Orient, creating the mythological and idealised vision of this remote culture. Sometimes it was difficult to tell which pieces were originally Chinese or European.

It gives me a little thrill each time I see any oblique references to tea drinking. From visiting a modern day art and antiques exhibition such as Masterpiece, walking past the stunning de Gournay showroom in Old Church Street, Chelsea and then burrowing around in the British Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum, everywhere there are strands of information interwoven with tea.

I would love to welcome you on one of my personally guided “History of Tea Tours” of the V & A. This tour is perfect for those who want to explore the history of tea drinking from its origins in China and East India to the height of its popularity in Georgian Britain, where it touched the English interior and forever shaped British culture.

The Tour includes not only the guided tour hosted by myself, but also a donation to the museum; printed tour notes; and of course tea and cake when we finish. Prepare to share two and a half hours with me on this tour. Reserve a place for yourself at only £42 per person >> click here.

History of Tea

The British Tea Time – A Tradition of Manners, Etiquette and “Polite” Society

Caroline Hope's Tea Time

There is a strong worldwide perception that tea is an English drink. According to the UK Tea Council – as a nation we drink approximately 165 million cups of tea every day, coming in just behind the Irish Republic. Why has tea become so embedded in British culture when it is really an oriental drink? Have we got so used to it being part of our lives here that we no longer ‘see’ tea for what it is – the growing camellia sinensis plant that has well over a 1,000 different varieties around the world. (Sinensis really means ‘of China or of Chinese origin)

Over 96 % of tea consumed in the UK is sold in tea bags. Supermarket shelves are packed with assorted tea bag brands. The terms to describe them include ‘lively’ and ‘calming’, and our expectation is that they will taste the same every single time we drink them. And yet the flavour and characteristics of origin teas (teas that come from a particular area, eg Assam) are influenced by the soil in which they are grown, the height above sea level and the climatic conditions, very much in the same way as wine. Once you have tried a delicate first or second flush Darjeeling your palate will be longing for more.

Over the past 10 to 15 years there has been a resurgence of interest in high quality origin and blended teas. At the same time going out for tea as a special occasion has become increasingly fashionable. Even now both tea drinking and the meal taken in the afternoon, have a whisper of formal manners and good behaviour that has passed down the generations.

In the 18th century tea drinking was a way to demonstrate ‘genteelness’ within the growing urban ‘middling’ classes, whose new wealth was derived from the industrial revolution that changed the face of Great Britain. Your skills in serving and taking tea showed that you knew how to behave in polite society, whilst the quality of your tea paraphernalia demonstrated your wealth. Think of all those family portraits in art galleries of a family drinking tea – an immediate indicator of how fashionable and rich they were.

Make sure when you next go out to tea you have your photograph taken as you preside over a tea table piled high with delicate food and a delicious cup of tea – tell the world you know and participate in  the magic of the English style tea party!

I am running an “Introduction to Popular English Teas” course through CityLit this year. If you would like to find out more have a look at their website, or drop me an email on The CityLIt website will be able to let you know if there is still availability.