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Storm In a Teacup: A Visual History of Tea (II)

by Anne Wallentine Tea at home In England, tea began as a high-status symbol and became an endearing, popular ritual that united people even as its varied serving methods and venues codified class distinctions. When she married Charles II in 1662, Catherine of Braganza was said to have brought a taste for tea to England, as well as the Portuguese-controlled Seven Islands of Bombay (modern Mumbai) in her dowry. However, the East India Company had made tea available as a luxury prior to Catherine’s arrival. And while the court’s consumption contributed to the fashion, the public gradually made it the sociable custom it remains. Initially, tea was depicted in conversation pieces to display elite status and politesse. A 1720 painting of a wealthy English family at tea includes both

by Anne Wallentine

Tea at home

In England, tea began as a high-status symbol and became an endearing, popular ritual that united people even as its varied serving methods and venues codified class distinctions.

When she married Charles II in 1662, Catherine of Braganza was said to have brought a taste for tea to England, as well as the Portuguese-controlled Seven Islands of Bombay (modern Mumbai) in her dowry.

Catherine of Braganza (1638–1705),
Peter Lely (1618–1680) (after). (PhotoNational Trust Images)

However, the East India Company had made tea available as a luxury prior to Catherine’s arrival. And while the court’s consumption contributed to the fashion, the public gradually made it the sociable custom it remains.

Initially, tea was depicted in conversation pieces to display elite status and politesse. A 1720 painting of a wealthy English family at tea includes both servants and guests, conveying the formal social hierarchies that revolved around the tea-table.

An English Family at Tea. Joseph van Aken (c.1699–1749). (Photo: Tate)

The tea service also signalled the family’s wealth and access to the benefits of imperial trade, including the ornate silver kettle, Japanese lacquerware table, Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, and Yixing stoneware teapot. As tea was so valuable, the mistress of the house locked and controlled the household tea caddy – here displayed in the foreground by her feet.

At the start of the eighteenth century, few could afford to be tea drinkers, and official imports were around six tons per year. By the end of the century, imports rose to 11,000 tons (not accounting for the substantial smuggling industry), and the price had fallen to one-twentieth of its former cost. These changes allowed tea to filter into popular consumption, moving from wealthy drawing rooms to everyday homes.

Couple Having Tea. Unknown artist. (Photo: Southampton City Art Gallery)

By the nineteenth century, tea had become affordable to the working class – although how it was taken, when, and in what kind of service remained distinguishing social markers.

The Village Gossips. Rolinda Sharples (1793–1838). ) (Photo: Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives)

Tea served at home garnered feminine associations, as men were freer to socialise elsewhere. Satirical prints like The Tea-Table used this setting – where women held power – to condemn gossip. (The stereotype continued in later images that poked fun at village gossips exchanging scandalous titbits over tea.)

The Tea Table. Satire on gossipping women; five fashionable ladies drink tea at a table placed on a carpet in an affluent interrior. On the table, as well as the tea service, are a closed fan, a muff and an open book lettered, “Chit Chat”. A devil lurks beneath the table and Envy drives Justice and Truth out of a door at upper left; two gentlemen eavesdrop at an open window on the right. On the back wall, left to right: an alcove with shelves displaying porcelain, a fireplace above which is a painting showing a monk carrying a woman on his back towards a church or monastery, and a mirror in an elaborate frame. Three columns of etched verse describe the slanderous conversation taking place.
Etching and engraving. (Photo: britishmuseum.org)

Tea became embedded in public life through tea gardens, parties, and dances. Vauxhall Gardens opened in 1732, the first of many fashionable spaces to provide refreshments and entertainment.

The Grand Walk, Vauxhall Gardens, London. Canaletto (1697–1768). (Photo: Compton Verney)

Tea rooms catered to women hemmed in by social restrictions, especially as contemporary coffee houses were often dominated by men.

Tea Room. Stanley Cursiter (1887–1976). (Photo: Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council)

Tea rooms’ respectability also appealed to proponents of the nineteenth-century temperance movement, who promoted tea as a healthy and moral alternative to alcohol (in contrast to early pamphlets that decried tea as a detrimental drug). Opponents poked fun at the movement’s sober attitude, as in paintings like Edward Bird’s Teatotalism, which shows a plainly dressed woman blowing on her cup of tea.

Teatotalism. Edward Bird (1772–1819). (Photo: Wolverhampton Art Gallery)

In the early nineteenth century, the Duchess of Bedford’s peckishness allegedly established the custom of afternoon tea, though the popularity of temperance tea parties may also have played a role.

Afternoon Tea, 1989. Jean Carolus (1814–1897) (Photo: Shipley Art Gallery)

The trend soon extended to luxury hotels and department stores, which offered lavish spreads. However, most people consumed humbler versions of tea and toast.

Tea and Toast. William Somerville Shanks (1864–1951). (Photo: The Hunterian, University of Glasgow)

While tea continued to be rooted in domestic rituals, its casual accessibility rose in the twentieth century. Tea shops staffed by uniformed attendants served the increasingly urban workforce.

Tea Shop. William Patrick Roberts (1895–1980). (Photo: Atkinson Art Gallery Collection)

With the rise of industrialisation, tea breaks were encouraged to keep people alert instead of the beer once provided to agricultural workers.

Tea Break. 1956. Joinery Works, Shardlow, Derbyshire (from memory). John Fineran (1935–2011). (Photo: Derby Museums)

A 1956 tea break at a joinery works in Derbyshire shows workers slumped or slurping cups of builder’s. No matter the occasion, tea was there.

Tea and soft power

As tea’s production and popularity grew, it became a national drink, associated with British power and identity. The empire relied on it for revenue, and the population for social functioning. To consume tea was to be part of the British empire. Naturally, advertising stepped in to promote both.

Empire Tea from India, Ceylon and East Africa (part of the ‘Drink Empire-Grown Tea’ set). Harold Sandys Williamson (1892–1978) and Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO) and Jordison & Co. Ltd (active c.1926–c.1957). (Photo: Manchester Art Gallery)

The Empire Marketing Board commissioned numerous posters,

Drinking Empire-Grown Tea (part of the ‘Drink Empire-Grown Tea’ set).
Harold Sandys Williamson (1892–1978) and Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO) and Jordison & Co. Ltd (active c.1926–c.1957) (Photo: Manchester Art Gallery)

including a 1935 series exhorting consumers to ‘Drink Empire-Grown Tea’ to encourage England’s trade dominance.

The series contrasted a woman picking tea on a plantation with the leisure of the stylishly attired English woman drinking the product of that labour. Meanwhile, a sunset landscape advertised a picturesque ideal of a tea plantation.

An Empire Tea Plantation (part of the ‘Drink Empire-Grown Tea’ set). Harold Sandys Williamson (1892–1978) and Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO) and Jordison & Co. Ltd (active c.1926–c.1957). (Photo: Manchester Art Gallery)

Advertisements in India also highlighted the British colonial image of tea – uniting happy labourers and mannered drinkers – as the Great Depression’s effects drove efforts to expand India’s domestic market. However, many nationalists opposed the colonial product until the trade board repositioned tea as a unifying, homegrown force during the struggle for independence.

An advertisement created in 1947, the year India gained independence, claimed tea as ‘100% Swadeshi’, incorporating the image of a Ghandian spinning wheel to situate it in the movement for self-reliance.


This marketing and the introduction of new tea-processing technology in the 1960s allowed chai to develop its now-ubiquitous presence.

The symbolism of tea continued to change in the UK as well. A 1950 portrait of the royal family took its composition from traditional conversation pieces, but the casual, domestic poses conveyed a newly informal approach after the social upheavals of the Second World War. Commonality, it suggested, could be found in the everyday event of having tea.

Conversation Piece at the Royal Lodge, Windsor. Herbert James Gunn (1893–1964). (Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London)

The growing postcolonial awareness of inequity has generated more depictions of the complexities of tea history, rather than the mere palatable. Susan Stockwell’s 2000 teabag collage styles the UK as a ‘Tea Country’ while mapping the legacy of colonial exploitation behind that identity.

China and India remain the largest producers of tea globally, but in 2021, Oxfam India reported that tea labourers in Assam were still paid less than a quarter of the proposed living wage.

Ai Weiwei’s 2007 work A Ton of Tea compresses this global history into a minimalist – albeit hefty – block, the weight of which we still carry today.

A Ton of Tea (edition 1/3). Ai Weiwei (b.1957). (Photo: Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives)

Tea remains an important cultural connector, too, in moments of ceremony in Japan, wedding traditions in India and China, and commiseration in the UK. It can even, occasionally, be found in the US. To paraphrase Kazukō: humanity continues to meet in the teacup.

Anne Wallentine, writer, editor and art historian

Original article: Art UK




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