A Tea Journey: From the Mountains to the Table
There is a saying that floats around; where it came from I have no idea, and whether it’s true or not I have not the foggiest; but I do love the sentiment:-
The Indians say of the tea bush,
They pick the newest buds for themselves,
the rest of the tree goes to the British
with the sweepings on the floor going to the rest of the world.
If you are anything like me then you will no doubt understand why whenever I leave the shores of the UK I have packed away with me a packet of tea. I would not dare to leave the British Isles without my trusted tea bags; after all, I am an addict, and as a Brit I’m not alone.
The British appetite for tea started in the 17th century, bought by traders from Spain and Portugal who traveled from the Far East where tea originates. It was China that first introduced the brew but the British falling in love with it, stole tea buds from China to take to India to grow (in the 19th century) hence our Indian association with tea. The irony being, the British didn’t and have never had the climate to grow it in the UK, instead used their colonial reign to disperse this most Chinese of delicacies. But this exhibition about tea doesn’t deal with the politics of the story it is purely a snapshot of our love affair with the history of this most loved brew.
The exhibition deals mainly with the Chinese connection and goes all the way through to exploring tea via a collection of modern artists. The show started out because the curator Antonia Harrison saw a painting of a British family gathered around a tea service. Johann Zoffany’s ‘John, Fourteenth Lord Willoughby de Broke, and His Family’
Johann Zoffany’s ‘John, Fourteenth Lord Willoughby de Broke, and His Family’ (c1766) © J Paul Getty Museum.
The painting says so much about the family’s status, wealth and confidence. Tea, after all, at this point was outrageously expensive. It was also terribly fashionable, de rigeur if you like, in the upper echelons of society. The painting is a glimpse into society, of how the family could afford such a lifestyle let alone have it painted and of course at the very centre of the table are the accouterments of Tea, a Chinese-style tea service and silver water urn. The actual urn in the image is on show, to the right of the painting at the exhibition. Tea was, in the early days the persevere only emperors in China and then only Royalty when it first arrived in Europe. It didn’t expand to the middles classes until the 18th century when, by then, the price had come down considerably thanks mainly to cheaper ways to transport tea from China.
On show within the collection of tea paraphernalia are early tea vessels like the “hare’s-fur” glaze drinking cup from China (almost wabi-sabi in its aging and from China’s Fujian province dating somewhere between c960-1217.) alongside a selection of tea images, teapots, teacups, and tea caddies. The tea caddies really stand out because many are very elaborate in design and also have locks, highlighting the value of the leaves in the early days of tea drinking in the UK.
Tea then became spread amongst the UK’s middle classes, becoming a little like the equivalent of ‘keeping up with the Jones’ for the British, going on to become an institution come rain or shine; from family gathering to the elixir that got us ‘through the war’, to every moment know of any British family from breakfast to supper and back again.
Alongside the examples of tea finery, are several modern interpretations of the tea journey including work from contemporary artists, some pieces are even special commissions. for the show. For example, Phoebe Cummings, stunning installation, Nocturne (clay, wire, steel) 2016 a stunning boxed off, delicate non-fired slip clay piece made up of twisted roots, branches, buds and flowers or a paper and bamboo “Umbrella Tea House”, by architect Kazuhiro Yajima, flown in especially for the exhibition. Build by the same technique of Japanese paper umbrellas it is a delicate and emotive piece.
Phoebe Cummings, Nocturne (clay, wire, steel) 2016
Other artists include Robin Best, Adam Buick, Charlotte Hodes, Ian McIntyre, Bruce Nuske, Selina Nwulu, Bouke de Vries, Hetain Patel, Paul Scott, Julian Stair, and Edmund de Waal.
There is a selection of small murals that travel across a wall of hand-painted pictorials of the tea journey from picking in the field to selling traders. There is also a miniature clipper ship (how tea transportation was made tea much cheaper to drink) amongst a plethora of tea history.
Included in the exhibition is an interactive section called the Tea Sensorium. Here you can find a ‘sniff the tea’ section, where you can bury your head into a selection of different leaves, from Gunpowder to Green tea via Jasmine and Oolong. Or, add a piece of art to the wall via a clay creation to help build a collaborative ceramic work of art within the style of Phoebe Cummings – Nocturne piece.
The exhibition is held within the magnificent Compton Verney House which happens to be set within the Capability Brown originally designed gardens. There is also a British Folk Art Collection within the gallery so there is plenty to do and see at this location.
The tea exhibition is small and beautiful, just delicate and warming to the soul. It does not attempt to bring in the politics of the history (which would also include the opium, sugar trades colonialism as well as slavery) but happens to be set within the most stunning of settings with other permanent galleries open to view. Walking through was rather like getting the kind of ‘hug’ you expect from a really satisfying cup of tea. And it’s fair to say I think you known how much I love that!
Kazuhiro Yajima, Soshin Kimura, Kotaro Nishibori Umbrella Tea House 2010
‘A Tea Journey’, at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, from July 6 to Sept 22; www.comptonverney.org.uk/