The summer exhibition at Compton Verney is built around the idea of the comforting cup of tea and its journey to our mugs, through time, history and continents.
The south Warwickshire gallery’s A Tea Journey: from the Mountains to the Table features historic items and new creations, some of which have quite distant connections to the theme. It also disabuses the visitor from the idea of tea as a benign comfort, showing the trails of addiction and slavery (from the inclusion of sugar to sweeten it) that came in its wake.
It illustrates well the fact that tea started out as a luxury drink, for consumption by royalty, then the very well to do, before British colonial production led to mass importation which made it the drink of the masses.
The exhibition, curated by Antonia Harrison, starts by looking at the use of the Camellia Sinensis in China centuries ago, and its discovery by westerners, including Johan Nieuhof of the Dutch East India Company who in the 1660s wrote and published on this wonder plant back home.
There are amazing survivals of ancient tea cups, with a Tang Dynasty porcelain cup from c800-900, and a tea or wine bowl with gold lacquer repairs visible from the tenth or eleventh century.
On the wall, a reproduction of a Japanese hand scroll drawn in ink and coloured pens on paper from 1772 shows the Wuyi Mountains, a prolific tea producing area, and a stream running through them. A set of attractive eighteen century watercolours show the process of producing tea, including helpful monkeys bringing down branches.
In the same gallery, Phoebe Cummings – who used to work greeting visitors to Compton Verney – has a new work, called An Ugly Aside. Made from wet clay, it is a sculpture of entwined tea plants and opium poppies. It is a reference to the botanist Robert Fortune who stole tea seedlings from China to be grown in India, and to the opium trade started by the British in exchange for tea from China, which left many addicted. As the sculpture is unfired it will crumble and turn to dust as the exhibition continues.
There is also the country’s oldest sample of tea from around 1700 which has been loaded by the Natural History Museum, and was collected for Sir Hans Sloan. A lidded bowl from 1746 is decorated with a poem written by an emperor, who used to host parties where he asked his guests to compose poems – about tea.
A copy of the painting which inspired the exhibition is on show (top). The 1766 Johan Zoffany painting shows the Willoughby de Broke family, who owned Compton Verney at the time, enjoying tea together, their wealth illustrated from the silverware they are using as well as the, at the time, high end drink. The tea urn in the painting has survived the centuries to go on show nearby!
In the same gallery and throughout the exhibition, there are numerous items in many different materials on show, demonstrating the artistry which has gone into tea pots, caddies, cups, saucers, sugar bowls and tongs. The detail on some is amazing.
A further gallery looks at the shipping of sea across the world, and when the visitor walks past the model of a clipper, Thermophylae, used to bring tea from Shanghai, it sparks the reading of a poem by Selina Nwulu, Sea Change, about the harshness of working on the tea plantations, and the tea’s eventual home in Britain.
Another contemporary work features in the largest gallery, Claire Partington’s Sailor, a porcelain model of a man laying face down, with a Kraken cut into his back, referencing the loss of ships at sea and rumours of sea monsters.
There is also a recording of songs sung by fourth generation tea plantation workers in West Bengal which is moving and engrossing.
This gallery shows how tea spread through the social classes. There’s a painting c1715 of Two Ladies and an Officer seated at tea, again showing off their prized tea service, then two of Compton Verney’s own paintings, The Interior of the Rotunda Ranelagh and The Grand Walk, Vauxhall Gardens, both around 1751 and by Canaletto, showing popular pleasure gardens where people would gather and drink tea.
The lovely A Cottage Interior: An Old Woman Preparing Tea by William Redmore Bigg from 1793 shows a much poorer room and set of tea wares as the woman sits ready to use bellows on her fire to heat her water.
A stand-out amongst the many tea items on show is the 1723 travelling tea and coffee service made by Meissen, a hefty case containing such travelling essentials as a teapot, milk jug and six cups and saucers. It is a well-painted but hefty item.
The Wedgwood Blue Jasperware three piece tea service from the nineteenth century demonstrates the move away from oriental or pastoral scenes to classical and contemporary reliefs.
Kazuhiro Yajima produced the Umbrella Tea House which has been shipped from Japan to Warwickshire for the exhibition, the architect creating the delicate room based on the idea of how an umbrella is made, with the space providing a moment to be shared.
There are further contemporary pottery and ceramic works, including Adam Buick’s moon jar, using a glaze made from tea leaf ash, sent to him from all over the world.
This is the end of the major part of the exhibition, and is interesting for the story it tells and how it tells it. Some of the other contemporary works shown seem to stretch a point too far, or not contribute, but overall there are a lot of attractive and fascinating items to see.
The other exhibition rooms have been turned into a Tea Sensorium, and may appeal more to youngsters. There are a selection of different types of tea to smell, a room to create a teapot design and one where people can create shapes in wet clay to add to a giant collage on the walls.
The exhibition is on until September 22.