Sunday, October 22, 2023

Genteel Pleasure; Observing the Tea-drinking Conversation Piece...

On this year’s trips to the V & A and the Tate London, amongst the vast collections of paintings I was drawn to the conversation pieces in their various forms, largely from the 18th century British collection. Characterized by the simple anecdotal quality of their domestic or landscape scenes, with sitters conversing together in small social groups as they share in common activities, these works have a certain intimacy. Whether the individuals portrayed are from the same family, or are friends or members of some group, we catch them in collective gatherings such as tea parties, meals, card games; musical events or hunting. Yet, just as much as we observe them and remark on the often-strange dynamics of the scene, they too look out on us, watching us quizzically or avoiding our gaze defiantly.
This unsettling eye contact, or lack of it, seems to bring another dimension to these works through this odd connection and silent exchange with these figures. Some family members have the same watchful expression, with similar, eerily beady eyes staring out, whatever the age of the individual! Even the horse studies of George Stubbs present magnificent beasts with solitary riders who stare out at us directly in an indefinable manner.
William Hogarth worked in the same genre, and even though his pieces largely pointed to the satire of the given situation and its hapless actors who fell prey to their own shortcomings, this particular eye contact is still present, as seen in his Strode family below. The conversation piece, as indeed the genre of the fictional novel itself, departed from the epic classical themes and forms to focus on the daily existence of the rising mercantile class. Although Joshua Reynolds worked in the Grand Manner, he would do conversation pieces, albeit with vast proportions featuring life-size figures. Meanwhile in France, Antoine Watteau in some ways perpetuated the conversation piece in his fêtes galantes but his characters are typically so engrossed in their amourous antics and caught up in the bucolic scenery that they have little time to waste engaging with us, the viewer! In England, the commissioned conversation piece enabled the rising moneyed classes to indulge in their self-satisfaction at their social position and impress society likewise; the ultimate ostentatious consumption! In the place of the aristocracy’s allegorical allusions to Classical antiquity and its values, was the reflection of genteel contemporary pleasures, focusing above all on those enjoying these activities.
Playing a key role in the conversation piece was the social etiquette that surrounded the ritual of tea drinking. As a genteel social activity, the consumption of tea en famille or preferably with guests was a means of demonstrating social manners, and of course displaying status in society and economic standing. Tea was first introduced to Europe in 1606, when the Dutch established their trade routes to Asia, and a shipment was sent to Amsterdam. In Britain, the rise of the East India Company led to greater imports of such exotic goods and the marriage of the tea-drinking Portuguese Catherine to Charles II in 1662 assured the success of this drink.
By the mid-17th century, tea was thus establishing itself as a genteel beverage in the upper classes. Indeed, Samuel Pepys mentioned it in his diary on Tuesday 25 September 1660, when he was offered a 'Cupp of Tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before'. As an apparent avid coffee drinker, Pepys was not won over by this foreign import that proved to cost 10 times the price of coffee, although he did laud its reputed medicinal properties. When Thomas Twining, famous tea purveyor expanded his existing store to create the Golden Lyon Tea and Coffee House, he helped change conventions and the role of women. Whilst social taboos prevented the fair sex from entering the typically male domain of the coffee house, women were allowed to shop for the high- quality dry tea offered by Twining. Eager to purchase this fashionable, elitist drink, ladies not only led the craze for social tea-drinking but were at the heart of the tea ritual in the home, when receiving and thus entertaining guests with tea and pretty conversation.
Serving tea was the female prerogative and much importance was attached to the preparation, pouring and ceremony of tea-drinking for this was the perfect way to demonstrate the hostess’s impeccable savoir-faire and enviable social position. As she In turn reflected the power and influence of her husband, only the best would do. Tea was indeed a costly commodity to purchase, and one which also required considerable paraphernalia – tea 'equipage' – in order to serve and drink it in the most fitting manner. The indispensable teapot and tea service had to reflect the excellent taste and limitless means of the lady of the house and therefore, porcelain was de rigueur for elegant cups (bowls) and saucers whilst the teaspoons and sugar tongs would of course have been in silver, perhaps with original designs. Again, women were often given the right to select the family tea equipage and thus expressed their identity through their preferences. All this is apparent in Joseph van Aken’s 'An English Family at Tea' (1720).
To up the ante, a genuine Chinese redware teapot would be used in place of a silver one, alongside a blue-white porcelain tea service whilst the tea caddy, kept under lock and key by the mistress, was typically made of mahogany or leather-covered wood with silver inlay or details in mother-of-pearl or tortoiseshell. In many of the conversation pieces, the caddy has pride of place, in the foreground of the painting, near the hostess... A silver sugar bowl would complete the set and give a final cachet to the whole, all the more so as sugar was likewise an expensive good. The tea table itself was extremely expensive as it was a key statement piece to highlight wealth and taste; usually made of exotic hardwood with carefully crafted legs and inlays designed to impress the guests. Finally, what I found most fascinating in the tea-drinking conversation pieces is that they are almost a mise en abîme; the image of an image of self-glorification coupled with a certain need for validation, in which we play a role too, at a remove of around 300 years! Just take a look again at those enigmatic stares!


  1. just discovered your delightful.eclectic blog! Beautiful and fascinating. Always lovely to encounter a fellow magpie.

  2. Yes, us magpies must stick together!!! Birds of a feather....


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