When something is said to be "as British as a cup of tea", what does that actually mean? Tea is barely grown in Britain – it’s too cold.
The tea plant (Camellia sinensis) hails from China, where cultivation began 4,000 years ago. According to Chinese mythology, it was discovered by accident when the emperor, Shennong, was having a drink of hot water in his garden, and leaves from a tree overhead fell into his cup. He enjoyed the taste immensely.
The story of how, in the millennia since, tea has become a fundamental part of British identity is told in a new exhibition, A Tea Journey, at Compton Verney gallery. The product first arrived in Europe at the turn of the 17th Century, courtesy of Dutch and Portuguese traders returning from the Far East.
Gradually, tea began to be drunk across the continent, though it was only after Charles II married his Portuguese consort, Catherine of Braganza, in 1662 that it caught on in this country. Catherine was an avid tea-drinker, and it became de rigeur in elite circles to follow her example.
The show includes what is possibly the oldest surviving sample of tea in the world. On loan from the Natural History Museum, it was collected in 1700 by the British physician, James Cuninghame, on a visit to China. (It looks much like a loose-leaf, black tea we might drink today, but probably wouldn't taste like one.)
The curators stress that tea started out as an "exotic luxury", costing £6 a pound – the equivalent of £850 today. Over the course of the 18th Century, however, as it started to be shipped to Britain in larger quantities, tea became popular with the middle classes, for whom it was a symbol of aspiration and respectability.
On display are a handful of teapots, teacups and tea caddies of elaborate design. One would have liked to see more of these. It's a point not really made in the show, but the rise of tea-drinking in Britain was a key factor in the rise of our porcelain industry too.
By the mid-19th Century, tea’s popularity had spread to all classes. Demand was so high that a new, speedier type of ship was even designed: the clipper. The average journey time from China to Britain was reduced from nine months to three. The exhibition includes a model of the clipper, Thermopylae, which defeated its counterpart, the Cutty Sark, in a much-hyped race from Shanghai to London in 1872.
It was in the mid-19th Century, too, that the British East India Company sent botanist Robert Fortune undercover to smuggle the finest tea specimens out of China – so they could be planted in India. Britain duly broke the Chinese monopoly of tea production, and the district of Darjeeling became famous.
In many ways, to tell the history of tea is also to tell the history of Britain over the past 350 years. Which brings us to the big problem with this exhibition. There’s little in it that one couldn’t gain from reading a book on the same subject – such as 2017’s A Thirst for Empire by Erika Rappaport.
Most of the exhibits aren’t eye-catching. To be fair, the history of art isn’t littered with great depictions of tea-drinking (apart from a few Mary Cassatt paintings from the 1880s, though these aren't in the show). But that’s still no reason why works by contemporary artists should make up a third of this exhibition, many of them special commissions. This seems totally inappropriate for a narrative that’s 4,000 years old.
Just as odd is the fact A Tea Journey‘s own narrative stops in 1900. The advent of tea bags in the 20th Century and our appetite for “wellness teas” such as matcha in the 21st isn’t considered.
There’s no catalogue to accompany the show either, and the whole thing has the feel of having been put together in a rush. It’s a strange and unsatisfactory brew.
‘A Tea Journey’, at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, from July 6 to Sept 22; comptonverney.org.uk 01926 645 500