Tea in Art

Capturing the quiet pleasures of tea is a theme in many paintings, book illustrations, and even on tea accessories themselves.

The complex yet serenely colorful scenes of chanoyu (the Japanese tea ceremony) often animate room screens, teapots and the other exquisite art and accessories of Japan. In both ancient and contemporary paintings or wall hangings, one can view tea service among friends or between lovers drawn in such exquisite detail that you can imagine yourself along with them in open air teahouses or in a tatami room in the countryside or in a private screen-partitioned room. Many of these paintings also depict the charcoal brazier to heat the kettle, the heirloom cups for guests to admire and to drink from, and the hosts, kimono-clad men or women joining us all over a 'bowl of tea.'

The processing of tea: gathering and drying the leaves, brewing the tea, are a familiar vantage in many Chinese paintings. The 12-paneled work of Cantonese watercolor painter Tingqua (1840-70) is perhaps the most well known showing each stage of the tea processing experience from growing to processing to crating for export. Certainly Chinese artisans have painted, sketched, and contributed to many scenes depicting tea, but perhaps the most important contribution has been the artful design of the first teapot, made today as it was hundreds of years ago in the Yixing area famed for its purple clay. Yixing pots are made to be exclusively used for just one type of tea, because its porous clay has the unique ability to retain the scent and flavor of tea after many uses so that just pouring in hot water will provide the teapot owner with the "taste" of tea.

The other remarkable art form developed by the Chinese was porcelain, what was at first called "china", often blue and white cups and pots and dishes sent along with tea from Canton to London where the British adapted this new-found dinnerware as its own, making the now-familiar "Blue Willow Ware" and finer pots and cups by such esteemed potters as Wedgwood, Minton, and others.

Throughout the centuries, painters not only depicted the people of the time at work or play, but in the social arena, and tea is a running theme from the 17th through the 19th centuries in some of the most illuminating and richly appointed paintings created by such French artists as M.A. Baschet, who depicted elegant family scenes around the dinner table or J.B.S. Chardin's acronym of a painting, M.I.F. which denoted "milk in first."

Dainty hands holding delicate porcelain cups are indicative not only of the class and position, but also the extraordinary quality of what was then a new material for dinnerware: nearly translucent, refined porcelain of Great Britain and France. Gone were the blue-gray pewter, banished was the sturdy crockery, and in their places were ornate or supremely graceful sterling to remind the aristocracy of their wealth and position, and this new, and expensive, way to serve drink and food, on hand-painted, cloud-white porcelain. And sterling tea sets from England, pewter and sterling from our own Paul Revere, and other fine teapots and cups are shown in many paintings from British, American, Dutch, and French painters from Mary Cassatt to John Singleton Copley to Nicolas Muys.

Painters in Russia give us Sunday afternoon images of families sitting on the grass of their summer dacha with a table laden with sweets and black tea made in high brass samovars, smoke spiraling from their coal-laden pipes or couples huddling for warmth around another samovar, drinking from bowls of tea. Picnics in the park, ladies in long skirts talking correctly, sipping delicately in a white latticed gazebo set among the flowers in a summer garden; a chorus of Danish women sewing around a lace-covered dining table with matching white cups and pot for refreshment between stitches. Indian miniatures of royalty feted with a special cup of tea and an unexpected Spanish still life of flowers, fruit and gold-rimmed teacup. All these, and more, have graced the walls of homes and museums to reflect the many ways the world enjoys its tea.

Tea in artwork is not always serious or quiet, however. Nothing has shown more liveliness or brazen charm than advertising art with bespectacled grandmothers, the old yachtsman himself, Sir Thomas Lipton, or the charm of 19th century illustration on tea cards, those highly-collectible paper art card that came in package of tea then, just as baseball cards braced the pink bubblegum of our youth. The twenties elevated tea box art to a form of soap opera with couples sipping tea in discreet alcoves in a private tea room or a more openly heart-catching drama of a gentleman seducing a chiffon draped woman with a teapot of Chase & Sanborn tea that "gives life new charm."

Photography, too, gives us a glimpse of tea as a daily art: who can forget the piercing black eyes the nomads of the world's deserts gathered around a nighttime campfire, drinking tea and recounting tales of their ancestors? Or, memorable bazaars of Morocco, full of exotic fabric curtains, turbaned tea men pouring mint tea from long narrow spouted brass teapots way way down into small glasses with the recommended two or three sugar cubes. Can't you just hear the tumult of train stations in India in travel photos that show chaiwallahs climbing sides of trains to offer chai? And, certainly, there is humor and charm in photographs of ageless Chinese drinking from covered cups (guywans) enjoyed totally one-handed, thumb moving the lid expertly so that the lips can enjoy the day's oolong or puerh as done for decades.