A brief history of tea

20 July 2019

9:00 AM

20 July 2019

9:00 AM

It had to happen. Since almost everything became either ‘artisan’ or ‘curated’, conditions have been ripe for a curator of artisan teas. And sure enough, if you Google ‘tea curator’ you’ll find one promising regular infusions of ‘a curated selection of single-origin, artisan teas’.

Now Compton Verney has done the sensible thing and curated an exhibition about the stuff. The starting point of A Tea Journey: from the Mountains to the Table is a copy of a painting by Johan Zoffany showing John Peyto-Verney, 14th Baron Willoughby de Broke, taking tea with his wife and three daughters around a tray loaded with Chinese porcelain, overlooked by a gigantic silver tea urn. The urn and two tea bowls, still in the family, are on display in an adjacent case, the bowls emblazoned with the family crest.

The principal appeal of any fad, of course, is the chance to splurge on expensive paraphernalia. As early as the 8th century, the legendary Chinese tea master Lu Yu’s The Classic of Tea established the importance of the right accessories, and this exhibition features an impressive array of vessels from a Tang dynasty cup to a special Compton Verney tea set designed by the contemporary ceramicist Julian Stair. There’s also a whole case full of caddies, some with locks to deter light-fingered tea leaves. But the darlings of the exhibition are the teapots, which arrived on the scene surprisingly late after loose-leaf tea replaced the powdered sort around 1700. There’s an amusing Yixing novelty pot shaped like a bamboo mouth organ and a caneware knock-off version by Josiah Wedgwood, plus all manner of modern and postmodern variations. One of the campest is Bruce Nuske’s Chinoiserie-inspired ‘China Leaf Teapot’ (2014); to Nuske the teapot represents ‘the spouted icon and Prima Donna of the ritual of Tea… the cross-dressing engine of hospitality’. More tea, vicar?

On a more mundane note, Ian McIntyre has designed a genealogical wall chart of the Brown Betty to show off the advantages of his newly re-engineered non-drip model — which, with its droopy uncircumcised spout, will not, I suspect, endear itself to traditionalists, drip or no drip. McIntyre’s chart illustrates the democratisation of a drink that when introduced to Charles II’s court by Catherine of Braganza cost £847 a pound in today’s money. Despite one early taster describing it as ‘somewhat like Hay mixt with a little Aromatick smell’, it quickly became fashionable with women: in 1711, in a bid to attract female readers to The Spectator, Addison and Steele expressed the hope that ‘this paper may furnish Tea-Table Talk’.

The launch of the tea clipper in the 1840s slashed two thirds off the journey time of the old slow boats to China, but it was only after Camellia sinensis seedlings were smuggled out by Scottish botanist Robert Fortune in 1848 and used to develop tea plantations in India that cheap black tea percolated down the social strata to become our national drink. Before that, tea smugglers had helped to bring prices down: elder leaves, potato parings, verdigrease and clover are among the adulterants listed by George Cruikshank in his cartoon ‘The T trade in hot water! Or, a pretty kettle of fish!!!’ (1818), satirising the introduction of prepackaged tea by Frederick Gye’s London Genuine Tea Company.

By the time MacDonald Gill produced his illustrated map ‘Tea Revives the World’ in 1940 — featuring such local recommendations as ‘Bedouins say that a camel, a gun & TEA are the three essentials of life’ — the United Kingdom was the world’s biggest importer of tea at 43,000,000lb a year. But would Lu Yu have recognised our national cuppa as tea? I doubt he would have seen the funny side of Hetain Patel’s video ‘How to Make a Proper Cup of Tea’ (2018), with its Mr Tetley in a flat cap and lab coat explaining in Gujurati to a British Asian how to dunk a teabag in a cup of boiling water, smother it in sugar, then drown it in milk.

Confession: Camellia sinensis is not my cup of tea — I prefer coffee. But I’m marginally closer now to understanding how something that tastes like aromatic hay could have kindled two opium wars and the American Revolution. What some people will do for a brew.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments