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To dunk or not to dunk, that is the question.

The Tea Table

The Tea Table 1885

James Pittendrigh MacGillivray (1856–1938)

Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council

Tea is quite a conundrum: it is an uplifting social drink that has caused all manner of chaos, from devastating colonial exploitation to mere 'violent disputes' over its brewing methods, as George Orwell wrote.

The Brown Tea Pot

The Brown Tea Pot 1915–1916

Gwen John (1876–1939)

Yale Center for British Art

Tea fuelled centuries of imperial expansion, exploitation and industrialisation. But, cup by cup, it has also facilitated social unity and compassion (or at least offered a solution to any awkward dilemma).

Because of these economic and social effects, the UK remains one of the top tea-consuming countries, downing approximately 100 million cups each day. Depictions in art and advertisements show how tea has become intertwined with British history and identity, uniting consumers in a shared national story while distinguishing social values in the many methods of sharing a cup.

Tea Plant (Camellia Sinensis): Flowering Stem

Tea Plant (Camellia Sinensis): Flowering Stem

unknown artist

Wellcome Collection

What is tea?

As shown in this botanical drawing, the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) produces flowers, but its leaves are used to produce the drink. They are withered, dried, and oxidised in different ways to create the varied kinds of tea we know today. Tea naturally contains caffeine, which stimulates energy, and tannins, whose antimicrobial properties may have contributed to tea's early medicinal use.

Tea was first cultivated in China, with references to its use dating from the first millennium BC. A legend attributes its discovery to the mythical emperor Shennong. Initially used as medicine, and occasionally in food, tea became popular as a beverage during the Tang Dynasty (618–907). Throughout the centuries, paintings illustrated tea's evolving ceremonial and domestic uses, as well as its associations with respect, status and sophistication.

A Couple Drinking Tea

A Couple Drinking Tea c.1800

Chinese School

Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust, Brighton & Hove

In the eighth century, tea spread to Japan via Buddhist monks. The country developed its own unique tea culture, formalising the aesthetic and philosophical ritual of the tea ceremony in the sixteenth century. Its spatial harmony and focused simplicity are evinced in a woodblock print by Mizuno Toshikata showing the 'daily practice of the tea ceremony'.

1896–1897, woodblock print by Toshikata Mizuno (1866–1908)

Chanoyu hibigusa (Daily practice of the tea ceremony)

1896–1897, woodblock print by Toshikata Mizuno (1866–1908)

Tea and colonialism

As global trade expanded, tea arrived in Europe in the early 1600s, and in England by the 1650s. 'The beverage soon became a necessity of life – a taxable matter,' scholar Okakura Kazukō wrote. England's subsequent commerce in tea lit the fuse of American independence, caused devastating social and economic effects in China, and drove the violent colonisation of India.

East India Company Ships at Deptford

East India Company Ships at Deptford c.1660

British (English) School

National Maritime Museum

The monopolistic East India Company founded its colonial trade routes in 1600 and aggressively established commercial and then military control in India. Though chartered to join the spice trade there and in southeast Asia, they expanded their remit to transporting enslaved people from Africa and trading with China and the American territories.

At its height, tea accounted for 60 per cent of the company's trade, and tea duties for 10 per cent of the British government's revenue – affording the company, and tea, an extreme influence on economic and political policy.

The company's lobbying led to a significant change in tea taxation that would give them an advantage in North American trade. In protest, American colonists held a tea party in Boston Harbour in 1773 that instigated the American War of Independence. Popular prints immortalised the scene of tea chests being thrown into the water under less-than-ideal brewing conditions.

1846, lithograph published by N. Currier (active 19th C)

The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor

1846, lithograph published by N. Currier (active 19th C)

At the height of England's tea trade with China in the late eighteenth century, figures of Chinese tea tasters stood on the parapet of a tea warehouse in Stafford, a testament to China's dominance of the industry.

Chinese Tea-Taster

Chinese Tea-Taster late 18th C

unknown artist

Staffordshire Museum & Art Collection

Though the British were eager to buy, they chafed at China's strict foreign trade regulations and lack of interest in British exports, which caused a significant trade imbalance.

The East India Company decided to finance the tea trade by illegally exporting opium, triggering the mid-nineteenth-century Opium Wars when the Chinese government tried to suppress the drug. Not only did the wars cause reverberating damage to the Chinese government and economy, but the disruptions in tea supply (and the end of its monopoly in China) further determined the East India Company to develop tea plantations in Assam.

The tea plant is indigenous to Assam, a fact that British speculators discovered only after several failed attempts to introduce Chinese plants to the area in the 1830s. Tea consumption in India predated the British arrival, but the introduction of industrial production and colonial control altered the landscape indelibly.

A nineteenth-century watercolour illustrates some of these oppressive hierarchies in the choreographed arrival of a European man and woman at a plantation.

Paintings of pickers and plantations show how tea was grown, harvested, and shipped in various locales, but rarely the realities of the industry. In Assam, indentured tea labourers worked under notoriously harmful and coercive conditions. But as the industry grew across the continent, these practices were shrouded by cheery, promotional imagery of predominantly women tea-pickers in picturesque fields.

Tea-Drying in Mr Hölle's Establishment, Java

Tea-Drying in Mr Hölle's Establishment, Java c.1876

Marianne North (1830–1890)

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

A page of languid sketches of a Tamil village and tea plantation from around 1889 centres a woman gracefully picking tea.

Flurried brushstrokes and vivid colours create more movement in Ceylonese Tea Pickers by Edward Atkinson Hornel, but the artist's interest seems to lie more in technique than in documenting the workers' features or conditions.

Ceylonese Tea Pickers

Ceylonese Tea Pickers

Edward Atkinson Hornel (1864–1933)

National Trust for Scotland, Broughton House & Garden

The human aspects of the tea trade were often glossed over, but numerous paintings commemorated the economic prowess and naval power that their labour built. Tea clippers like the Cutty Sark were designed for speed to meet growing demand in the nineteenth century.

The Clipper 'Cutty Sark'

The Clipper 'Cutty Sark'

John Fraser (1858–1927)

National Maritime Museum

But once the tea arrived, British consumers saw only what was in their cups. Tea plantations – and the people who produced tea – were often exoticised and distanced from the domestic British imagery of tea until the twentieth century.

Tea at home

In England, tea began as a high-status symbol and became an endearing, popular ritual that united people even as its varied serving methods and venues codified class distinctions.

When she married Charles II in 1662, Catherine of Braganza was said to have brought a taste for tea to England, as well as the Portuguese-controlled Seven Islands of Bombay (modern Mumbai) in her dowry.

Catherine of Braganza (1638–1705)

Catherine of Braganza (1638–1705)

Peter Lely (1618–1680) (after)

National Trust, Hardwick Hall

However, the East India Company had made tea available as a luxury prior to Catherine's arrival. And while the court's consumption contributed to the fashion, the public gradually made it the sociable custom it remains.

Initially, tea was depicted in conversation pieces to display elite status and politesse. A 1720 painting of a wealthy English family at tea includes both servants and guests, conveying the formal social hierarchies that revolved around the tea-table.

An English Family at Tea

An English Family at Tea c.1720

Joseph van Aken (c.1699–1749)

Tate

The tea service also signalled the family's wealth and access to the benefits of imperial trade, including the ornate silver kettle, Japanese lacquerware table, Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, and Yixing stoneware teapot. As tea was so valuable, the mistress of the house locked and controlled the household tea caddy – here displayed in the foreground by her feet.

At the start of the eighteenth century, few could afford to be tea drinkers, and official imports were around six tons per year. By the end of the century, imports rose to 11,000 tons (not accounting for the substantial smuggling industry), and the price had fallen to one-twentieth of its former cost. These changes allowed tea to filter into popular consumption, moving from wealthy drawing rooms to everyday homes.

Couple Having Tea

Couple Having Tea 1830–1840

unknown artist

Southampton City Art Gallery

By the nineteenth century, tea had become affordable to the working class – although how it was taken, when, and in what kind of service remained distinguishing social markers.

The Village Gossips

The Village Gossips c.1828

Rolinda Sharples (1793–1838)

Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

Tea served at home garnered feminine associations, as men were freer to socialise elsewhere. Satirical prints like The Tea-Table used this setting – where women held power – to condemn gossip. (The stereotype continued in later images that poked fun at village gossips exchanging scandalous titbits over tea.)

c.1710, etching and engraving published by John Bowles

The Tea-Table

c.1710, etching and engraving published by John Bowles

Tea became embedded in public life through tea gardens, parties, and dances. Vauxhall Gardens opened in 1732, the first of many fashionable spaces to provide refreshments and entertainment.

The Grand Walk, Vauxhall Gardens, London

The Grand Walk, Vauxhall Gardens, London c.1751

Canaletto (1697–1768)

Compton Verney

Tea rooms catered to women hemmed in by social restrictions, especially as contemporary coffee houses were often dominated by men.

Tea Room

Tea Room 1913

Stanley Cursiter (1887–1976)

Museums & Galleries Edinburgh – City of Edinburgh Council

Tea rooms' respectability also appealed to proponents of the nineteenth-century temperance movement, who promoted tea as a healthy and moral alternative to alcohol (in contrast to early pamphlets that decried tea as a detrimental drug). Opponents poked fun at the movement's sober attitude, as in paintings like Edward Bird's Teatotalism, which shows a plainly dressed woman blowing on her cup of tea.

Teatotalism

Teatotalism 1795

Edward Bird (1772–1819)

Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage

In the early nineteenth century, the Duchess of Bedford's peckishness allegedly established the custom of afternoon tea, though the popularity of temperance tea parties may also have played a role.

Afternoon Tea

Afternoon Tea 1879

Jean Carolus (1814–1897)

Shipley Art Gallery

The trend soon extended to luxury hotels and department stores, which offered lavish spreads. However, most people consumed humbler versions of tea and toast.

Tea and Toast

Tea and Toast

William Somerville Shanks (1864–1951)

Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

While tea continued to be rooted in domestic rituals, its casual accessibility rose in the twentieth century. Tea shops staffed by uniformed attendants served the increasingly urban workforce.

Tea Shop

Tea Shop 1938

William Patrick Roberts (1895–1980)

Atkinson Art Gallery Collection

With the rise of industrialisation, tea breaks were encouraged to keep people alert instead of the beer once provided to agricultural workers.

A 1956 tea break at a joinery works in Derbyshire shows workers slumped or slurping cups of builder's. No matter the occasion, tea was there.

Tea and soft power

As tea's production and popularity grew, it became a national drink, associated with British power and identity. The empire relied on it for revenue, and the population for social functioning. To consume tea was to be part of the British empire. Naturally, advertising stepped in to promote both.

Empire Tea from India, Ceylon and East Africa

Empire Tea from India, Ceylon and East Africa (part of the 'Drink Empire-Grown Tea' set)

Harold Sandys Williamson (1892–1978) and Jordison & Co. Ltd (active c.1926–c.1957) and Her Majesty's Stationery Office (HMSO)

Manchester Art Gallery

The Empire Marketing Board commissioned numerous posters, including a 1935 series exhorting consumers to 'Drink Empire-Grown Tea' to encourage England's trade dominance.

Drinking Empire-Grown Tea

Drinking Empire-Grown Tea (part of the 'Drink Empire-Grown Tea' set)

Harold Sandys Williamson (1892–1978) and Jordison & Co. Ltd (active c.1926–c.1957) and Her Majesty's Stationery Office (HMSO)

Manchester Art Gallery

The series contrasted a woman picking tea on a plantation with the leisure of the stylishly attired English woman drinking the product of that labour. Meanwhile, a sunset landscape advertised a picturesque ideal of a tea plantation.

An Empire Tea Plantation

An Empire Tea Plantation (part of the 'Drink Empire-Grown Tea' set) 1926–1933

Harold Sandys Williamson (1892–1978) and Jordison & Co. Ltd (active c.1926–c.1957) and Her Majesty's Stationery Office (HMSO)

Manchester Art Gallery

Advertisements in India also highlighted the British colonial image of tea – uniting happy labourers and mannered drinkers – as the Great Depression's effects drove efforts to expand India's domestic market. However, many nationalists opposed the colonial product until the trade board repositioned tea as a unifying, homegrown force during the struggle for independence.

An advertisement created in 1947, the year India gained independence, claimed tea as '100% Swadeshi', incorporating the image of a Ghandian spinning wheel to situate it in the movement for self-reliance.

This marketing and the introduction of new tea-processing technology in the 1960s allowed chai to develop its now-ubiquitous presence.

The symbolism of tea continued to change in the UK as well. A 1950 portrait of the royal family took its composition from traditional conversation pieces, but the casual, domestic poses conveyed a newly informal approach after the social upheavals of the Second World War. Commonality, it suggested, could be found in the everyday event of having tea.

Conversation Piece at the Royal Lodge, Windsor

Conversation Piece at the Royal Lodge, Windsor 1950

Herbert James Gunn (1893–1964)

National Portrait Gallery, London

The growing postcolonial awareness of inequity has generated more depictions of the complexities of tea history, rather than the mere palatable. Susan Stockwell's 2000 teabag collage styles the UK as a 'Tea Country' while mapping the legacy of colonial exploitation behind that identity.

China and India remain the largest producers of tea globally, but in 2021, Oxfam India reported that tea labourers in Assam were still paid less than a quarter of the proposed living wage.

Ai Weiwei's 2007 work A Ton of Tea compresses this global history into a minimalist – albeit hefty – block, the weight of which we still carry today.

A Ton of Tea

A Ton of Tea (edition 1/3) 2007

Ai Weiwei (b.1957)

Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

Tea remains an important cultural connector, too, in moments of ceremony in Japan, wedding traditions in India and China, and commiseration in the UK. It can even, occasionally, be found in the US. To paraphrase Kazukō: humanity continues to meet in the teacup.

Anne Wallentine, writer, editor and art historian

Further reading

Markman Ellis, Richard Coulton & Matthew Mauger, Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World, University of Chicago Press, 2015

Okakura Kazukō, The Book of Tea, Duffield, 1906

Iris MacFarlane and Alan MacFarlane, Green Gold: The Empire of Tea, Ebury, 2003

Jane Pettigrew & Bruce Richardson, A Social History of Tea, Benjamin Press, 2013

Erika Rappaport, A Thirst for Empire: How Tea Shaped the Modern World, Princeton University Press, 2017

Jayeeta Sharma, Empire's Garden: Assam and the Making of India, Duke University Press, 2011

Lu Yu, translated by Francis Ross Carpenter, The Classic of Tea, Ecco Press, 1974