A Taste for Tea

I am always interested in the story behind customs and tastes, how styles emerge and evolve, the history behind enduring motifs: from pineapple to swan, rococo to chinoiserie. Why?  because it gives depth and resonance to your experience of daily life and it’s fun to see how the connections weave together,  a bit like working out you have friends or places in common,  at home it’s preferably over a pot to tea and a roaring fire (for most of the year).


Tea à la Wedgewood looks very inviting and quintessentially English

Tea is synonymous with English life, it is seen as a defining element of the nation, rationing was carefully undertaken to make sure stocks (and morale) survived the war and ended so that  Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation in 1952 could be truly celebrated with free-flowing tea.  But tea was once exotic and rare, becoming a symbol of social chic around which a paraphernalia of objéts and customs were developed, wars were fought, an empire was made and ‘tea was served’.


Samuel Pepys notes  sending for a cup of tea  in 1660 and it’s  popularity in England was assured when Catherine de Braganza married Charles II in 1662.  Portugese colonies granted in her dowry gave a trading foothold, while a ‘queen’s tea habit’ ensured the beau monde wanted to follow suit particularly when King Charles was clearly partial too after years in sophisticated, foreign courts where ‘tcha’ was already simmering.

Dirk Stoop (c 1610-1685) Catherine of Braganza c 1610Catherine de Braganza

Tea drinking created the desire for the appropriate setting to enjoy this exotic brew. The Baroque palaces which rose up when Protestant William and Mary were imported from Holland in 1688 were strongly influenced by Daniel Marot’s interiors at Hampton Court, here Mary’s extraordinary collection of blue and white porcelain took centre stage.  Off stage from the formal state rooms, intimate closets were created in a Chinoiserie style for the chic ‘tcha’ drinking.  Where Aristos lead parvenus and middle class yearn to follow, tea’s social cachet combined with the East India Company’s determination to make it popular (filling their ships and coffers) meant tea consumption grew from 214, 000 lbs in 1713 to 32 million lbs in 1813.

Daniel Marot Hampton Court Mary's chinaware

London coffee houses stocked tea, extolling its virtues at making the body active and lusty and preserving perfect health until extreme old age, no one could make such claims for mead and gin.  It was initially an expensive commodity for families to buy, kept under lock and key by the lady of the house, tea gave the household a fashionable air and social cachét.

silver tea caddies in chest with lockAn elegant set of silver tea caddies with their ‘treasure chest’ box, complete with locks.

The early 18th century sees several portraits of families at tea, it visually asserted both their sophistication and family values, and it’s  tea-drinking  not coffee that comes to epitomise civilized behavior in the eighteenth century.

1_Joseph_Van_Aken_Antwerp_born_British_painter_c.1699_1749_An_English_Family_at_Tea_1725Joseph Van Aken An English Family at Tea 1725

1 Gawen Hamilton (British artist, 1692-1737)  An elegant family at tea Gawen Hamilton (1692-1737)  An elegant family at tea

1 Johann Zoffany (German-born painter, 1733-1810) John, Lord Willoughby de Broke, and his Family.  C 1766.Johann Zoffany c.1766  Lord Willoughby de Broke and his family

Hogarth_the_strode_familyWilliam Hogarth c. 1738 The Strode Family

Hogarth’s scathing social commentatory in Marriage à la Mode and The Rake’s Progress is replaced by sincere  compliment when he paints his patron,  hosting (you guessed it)  tea time. All these paintings interest A Decorative Affair as the domestic setting also gives us an opportunity to see the latest 17th Century interiors: the paint colours, those damask chairs, vivid Turkey-carpets, lively Corinthian capitals and of course the elegant tea bowls. Hogarth excels at this when using interiors and decorative objects to characterise his social commentary, 18th century England (much like 21st century England) uses decoration to promote stylish credentials giving Hogarth ready tools for satire and us a means to read interior trends.

marriage2‘Téte á Téte’  from Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode ,  Tate Britain notes (it) as much about patronage, aesthetics and taste as it is about marriage and morals

So the utensils for drinking tea were a carefully chosen aesthetic statement: your tea tray said a lot about you.  Tea and porcelain go hand in hand,  Europeans knew they couldn’t grow tea but surely we could make porcelain? the race was on  inspired by the mysterious tales of the East. From  the 1660’s to the late 1730’s Europeans made pottery, silverware and (finally) porcelain in ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ paste which decoratively imitated  the Chinese motifs  and the origins of the tea whilst creating their own shapes and products to reflect how Europeans drank tea.

ts Jean-Etienne Liotard (Swiss artist, 1702-1789) Still Life Tea Set, 1781-83St Jean-Etienne Liotard, Still Life Tea Set, 1781-83

We didn’t  understand the Chinese tea drinking ceremony which left us free to create our own: The Chinese didn’t use tea pots, we invented them (socially useful), we also added milk to smooth the taste of tannins and then sugar to sweeten.  The picture above shows how we drank from tea bowls on saucers, the European taste for handles (1740’s on) only gradually gaining acceptance in England.   Tea was served with sliced bread and butter, cakes and biscuits only landing on the tray as 19th Century England embraces ‘teatime’, cupcakes are strictly a 21st Century gimmick.  I love the array of wonderful goods tea drinking inspired, the decorative charm and craftsmanship which these pieces display:

The place I would really like to drink tea is Claydon Hall, here tea is celebrated in fabulous OTT  Rococo-Chinoiserie style, naturally in the Chinese Room, here  Luke Lightfoot (carver of genius left unattended by his architect boss, who tried to have it all ripped out on sight) went wild with the Chinoiserie pattern books.  Doors are with pagoda crestings and fretted panels rest on Mandarin term figures.

The Chinese Room with its elaborately carved doorcase and Pagoda at Claydon House, Buckinghamshire

Piéce de la Resistance: a tea alcove which recreates of the Chinese fantasies seen on porcelain… a kind of pagoda-pavilion carved in wood with elaborately carved niches bursting flowers, shells, scrolls, bells  and amidst it all a chinese family arms raised, tea cups ready.

Claydon Hall tea carving

2014 is the tricentenary  of tea drinking really taking off, the arrival of George 1st in 1714 begins the ‘long century‘ when Georgian Britain emerges in all its decorative glory and architectural splendour.  There are a lot of celebrations and The British Library kicked it off earlier this year with ‘Georgian’s Revealed‘, it’s opening scene…a display devoted to tea drinking.   Throughout the Georgian era tea becomes increasingly patriotic uniting the Empire trading routes in its brew: tea (increasingly grown in India, once we stole the tea shoots) and sugar (Carribean plantations). Thus as Chinoiserie falls from favour in the late 18th Century, tea still thrives and strengthens its position as the national drink, Wedgewood and co. having succeeded in  creating tea services  in an aspirational image: be it neo-classical elegance,  ‘Enlightenment’  pastoral dreamsl or Royal Warrant meets ‘God Save the Queen’ patriotism still riding high today:


 TEA LEAVES (‘facts’ which rested in the bottom of my bowl after drinking the heady brew of tea history)

  • Of course in my mind’s eye ‘tea’ and ‘chinoiserie’ are strongly linked, friends if you like.  Tea is a Chinese export and their porcelain is the perfect accompaniment.
  • Green Tea was often too delicate to survive the long journey, the Chinese therefore dried it longer to make it more robust, developing the familiar ‘black tea’ for the export market.
  • Porcelain imports of Blue and White, Famille Verte and Famille Rose were called ‘India China Ware’, describing the importation route porcelain took  via India and ultimately leading to the moniker ‘china’ for porcelain.
  • Tea drinking became popular around the time Locke was theorising that we furnish the mind with our experiences, therefore our surroundings and habits form mind and character, the tea cup (choice of style thereof) is partly an assertion of self-identity and partly an object whose characteristics create the owners/users identity.  I wonder what metaphors Shakespeare would have created if tea drinking had been fashionable in his time: Jonathon Swift, Daniel Defoe and Alexander Pope all have plenty to say.
  • The habit of ladies ‘withdrawing’ after dinner started as a way of giving the lady of the house time to brew and prepare tea service
  • 1760’s tea-urn introduced, still popular in villages halls thoughout the land.
  • Regency and Victorian England saw tea time develop as ‘afternoon’ ritual when the Duchess of Bedford passed round the cake, still appreciated throughout the land and glorified in tiered-excess at the chicest London hotels, just add champagne for the ultimate treat.
  • The history of the World in 100 objects features the tea set as tea dissects so many strands in English and world history,   particularly  The Opium Wars in the Far East  (you will take our opium) and the American Civil War in the New World (you will pay our import duties).

The ‘china ware’ developed by Britain and Europe at this time is highly sought after, the tastemaker’s of today still make a statement with its designs, the originals being highly prized, from pared back asphalt chic and creamware to classic ‘India China Ware’ homage in blue and white:

to Chinoiserie chic and botanic charm:

My instagram feed FIZZED when  the fashion possie stylishly convened in NYC, Hamish Bowles caught up with Caroline Sieber ‘at home’ over afternoon tea (naturally) in her Chinoiserie sitting room, proof that Chinoiserie is toujours chic and ‘a taste for tea’ always in Vogue.

instagramFashion’s Uber-Stylist Caroline puts her feet up with Vogue (after her wedding was featured) via Decorista.com

When interior designs créme de la créme get together at Decorex (after Summer hols ‘partout’ ) they will also do it in high style.  The venue is Syon Park where Robert Adams created his fabulous Neo-Classical interiors.  I am intrigued to see how today’s leading designers will interpret  the eight scenes from Hogarth’s morality tale ‘A Rakes Progress’  in a series of exhibits forming a showcase entrance (and in such a setting): exuberant homage to Georgian style? chic contemporary re-alignment? or Grayson Perry style riff?  I will let you know.

William_Hogarth_022A Rake’s Progress: The Morning Levée …getting ready to party.

I love how Decorex celebrates the extraordinarily rich British design legacy: creating a gilt-link chain from the  pioneers of interiors past to the ‘best of the new’ . Tastemakers ready? I know I will need to digest the decorative feast on offer so I am looking forward to a Champagne bar  created by  Les Trois Garçons , my bet is that their dramatic interior would definitely get the Georgian Beau Monde’s seal of approval and I am sure that amidst the Ruinart and Veuve Clicquot it has a tasty cup of tea …

3 garcons unicorn





Books Consulted and Images taken From:





One thought on “A Taste for Tea

  1. Pingback: Stella and Issy’s Gilded Borders | adecorativeaffair

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