On looking at tea

Jean-Étienne Liotard, Still Life: Tea Set, c. 1781-1783, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA
Jean-Étienne Liotard, Still Life: Tea Set, c. 1781-1783, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA

The Swiss artist Jean-Étienne Liotard painted a table still-life of a set of tea things on a tray, probably around 1781. The painting, called Tea Set, is now in The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It depicts a delicate Chinese famille-rose porcelain tea-set upon a painted lacquer or tin-ware tray. The shiny porcelain glints in the light, spots of silvery paint catching the reflections. The porcelain pieces are all of a set, glazed with figurative scenes of men and women, highlighted with gold enamel. At first glance, it looks like a complete setting, ready for tea: it depicts the cups and saucers, each with its matching silver teaspoon, set out on the tray, with all the other tea-things needed for service. There is a teapot, a sugar bowl filled with lumps of sugar, with an elaborate pair of silver tongs, a water jug, a slops bowl, and a lidded canister of tea leaves. There is also a matching plate, on which bread and butter have been served. But intriguingly, this is not a new setting for tea. Rather, the tea party has already happened, or has been interrupted. A used cup and saucer has been unceremoniously dumped into the slops bowl. And in the cup at the back of the tray, from the observer’s point of view, there is a tea-spoon standing in a cup, which is still half-full with cold tea. Liotard’s careful painting reveals the pale greeny-brown hue of bohea (oolong), its bright transparent clarity indicating that – as was common – it had been consumed without milk.[1]

liotard cup close up

What does tea look like? – in the eighteenth century, that is. There are many botanical illustrations of Camellia sinensis from the period, but very few depictions of the infusion itself. In describing good tea, writers of the period were especially drawn to tea’s colour, brightness, and aroma. They noted, for example, the vegetable grassy aromas of green tea, and tried to record the different hues of green, yellow and brown they detected in prepared green tea. In exploring the distinction between bohea and green tea on the blog in February, Richard Coulton noted that Thomas Short, in his Dissertation upon Tea published in 1730, described how the form of green tea known as Hysson produced an infusion of a ‘pale greenness’ with a ‘delicate smell and bitterish-sweet Taste’ that is ‘most delicious’.[2] But what does this pale green bright liquor look like?


Tea was also a hot beverage. Jean-Simeon Chardin’s painting A Lady taking Tea (1735) – now in the Hunterian Art Gallery at the University of Glasgow – captured a moment when the tea was seemingly still quite fresh, with steam rising in curls off the beverage.[3] There are few images like this, of a solitary woman taking tea. It was painted shortly before the death of Chardin’s first wife, Marguerite Saintard, and some scholars have suggested it depicts tea-taking not for pleasure but for its sanative properties, as a dose of medicine. Steam, or water vapour, rises from the tea because it is hotter and lighter than the surrounding air. But it is a very transitory and diaphanous atmospheric event. Balthasar Denner’s Portrait of the Artist’s Daughter, Offering a Cup of Coffee, painted in 1732, currently for sale at the dealer Philip Mould Ltd, in Dover St London, combines both these elements, albeit about coffee.[4] The young woman in the picture, assumed to be the painter’s daughter Catharina, is presenting coffee to the viewer (she is ‘Eine Kaffee Schenkerinn’). She is holding the delicate porcelain cup in a peculiar reverse grip, and has spilled some of the liquid into the bowl. This allows us to see its bright transparency, served without milk. Above the cup a delicate curl of steam reveals the heat of the beverage.


[1] Jean-Étienne Liotard, Still Life: Tea Set, c. 1781-1783, oil on canvas mounted on board, 37.8 x 51.6 cm. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Photo: J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles: 84.PA.57.

[2] Thomas Short, A Dissertation upon Tea, Explaining its Nature and Properties (London: W. Bowyer, 1730), pp. 14-15.

[3] Jean-Simeon Chardin, A Lady Taking Tea, (1735), oil on canvas; dimensions 81.0 x 99.0cm; Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow.

[4] Balthasar Denner (1685-1749), Eine Kaffee Schenkerinn [The Coffee-Giver], or Portrait of the Artist’s Daughter, Offering a Cup of Coffee (1732), Oil on canvas, 76 x 63.2 cm, Philip Mould Lt, London.


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