by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |
Holburne Museum, Bath
The Auriol and Dashwood Families in India by Johan Zoffany, c.1783-87

A Good Brew

By Roderick Conway Morris
COMPTON VERNEY, Warwickshire 6 September 2019


Despite its countless varieties, achieved by a host of different ways of processing it, all tea derives from exactly the same type of evergreen bush with small fragrant flowers, a member of the camellia family.

Curiously enough, this was not understood outside China - where it was first cultivated and where its secrets were jealously guarded - until the 19th century, by which time large parts of the world had become hopelessly addicted to it, making it now the most widely drunk liquid after water.

The quest for tea and the ever-widening global trade in it was a major stimulus for imperial expansion and the introduction of this bitter drink into Europe was a driving force in the demand for sugar and the consequent cultivation of sugarcane and development of the Atlantic slave trade.

Both the upsides and downsides of the history of this most international of beverages are skilfully illustrated in 'A Tea Journey: From the Mountains to the Table', curated by Antonia Harrison, in the elegant setting of Compton Verney, which is surrounded by a splendid park laid out by Capability Brown.

Buddhist monks, who used it to keep awake during long hours of meditation, are often credited with the spread of tea in the East. It soon became a more widely consumed sociable drink among scholars and intellectuals, as is illustrated by a beautiful 18th-century Japanese scroll of the famous Wuyi tea-growing district in China. Catherine de Branganza, wife of Charles II, was reputedly responsible for introducing tea-drinking from Portugal to these shores. The cost at that time was astronomical: £6 a pound, the equivalent of around £850 today, but in the 19th century the cultivation of tea in India and elsewhere within the borders of the Empire brought it within reach of even the poorest. Indeed, English Breakfast Tea remains symbolic of this imperial phenomenon, traditionally being a blend of leaves from Assam, Ceylon and East Africa.

Tea-drinking entailed the use of a range of paraphernalia, from bowls and cups to caddies and teapots, which at first were imported into the West and, as tea-drinking caught on, were designed and manufactured locally. A pair of Meissen porcelain cups and their deep saucers (c.1735) nicely bear witness to the practice in earlier times of pouring the tea into the saucer before drinking it, probably to cool it. The custom is still widespread in India and memorialized in the Southern Welsh term for a 'cuppa', dishgled (a saucer). Also interesting is how the tea urn, which once graced 18th-century upper-class tables, survived in polite society as the samovar in Russia, but was downgraded to the workplace and sports pavilion in Britain.

A Tea Journey: From the Mountains to the Table; Compton Verney, Warwickshire, 6 July - 22 September 2019

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024