Ring the Bell for Tea!

30 April 2018

Tea is a commodity that has become an elaborate part of British history. The custom for taking tea became a national obsession in England by the 18th century. The origins of this libation in Britain are to be found in the foundations laid by the East India Company in Asia, which eventually led to the formation of the British Empire. Tea was first acquired by the East India Company from the Far East, from places like China. The rise of tea drinking in England is attributed to the arrival of Catherine of Braganza in 1662 to the English court, as the future Queen to Charles II. She arrived bearing a chest of tea from her native Portugal, and soon the English court became accustomed to the daily ritual of taking tea. Royalty were leaders in taste to their people, thus they assisted in spreading the tradition of tea drinking. As tea was advocated as a healthy beverage and extremely popular, social patterns were altered. As an example, after dinner women in the 18th century retired to take tea in the withdrawing room, which was a custom that was before unpractised. Taking tea allowed patrons to display their wealth, status and individual fashion consciousness. The distinct taste for taking tea among the fashionable can be attributed to the foreign, rare and novelty nature of this refreshment, which was an influential factor in the English public acceptance of it. With the rapid rise in the popularity of taking tea as a social ritual, no household went without tea; it became a staple of upper middle-class life. This blog post will explore tea equipage and furniture, namely the tea table, the tea caddy and the kettle stand.

The furniture industry benefited from the fashion for taking tea. English cabinet-makers recognised the potential to create specialised tea furniture, to ensure customers enjoyed taking their tea in the utmost comfort, style and sophistication. Tea drinking reached its peak in popularity during the 18th century and this is reflected in the numerous types of tea table designs available. Tea tables predominantly retained rectangular tops and were designed to hold complete tea equipage. These tables proved very favoured amongst the upper echelons of 18th century and Regency society, evident in the mid-18th century mention of them in Miss Hamilton's diary when staying with Mrs Delaney at Bulstrode; “it was customary to have tea at seven...We have each our little table”. Our example below circa 1810 is a spectacular quintessential Regency period tea table. It retains a rectangular top, which is extremely typical and has delightful brass-mounted and moulded scroll umbrella-shaped legs joined by circular platform, which is also highly characteristic of the tea table from this period.

The surge in popularity of this beverage created a lucrative market for the correct equipage. During the height of the 18th century, tea caddies were made by cabinet-makers to store tea, a valuable commodity, which therefore required proper storage for its preservation. Tea caddies were small and portable objects that were brought to the tea table for the social practice of tea-drinking. They were made out of a large varieties of materials; they could be solid or veneered wood, inlaid or painted and the wooden cases could be overlaid with ivory, filigree or tortoiseshell. Their shapes varied too, from oblong to hexagonal and octagonal. Some were even fashioned to look like fruits such as apples and pears and others were in urn shapes. These elaborate shapes were developed in the 18th century and into the 19th century. Tea caddies could be single, double or triple compartmented box, designed to hold approximately one pound of tea. Being very costly, caddies had a lock and key and were kept in the lady of the house's closet. The tea caddy, like other a la mode tea accoutrements, was a symbol of status and high fashion. Our example exemplifies the classic mid-18th century tea caddy, with its bombée shape and ogee bracket feet. It has a wonderful original swan-neck handle, made of brass which was also very typical of pieces from that period.

The purpose of the silver teakettle was to replenish empty teapots with hot water. It was heavy in weight so the kettle stand was designed to robustly hold it. Their tops took a variety of forms, although they were predominately circular, some were triangular or square to correspond with the design of the teakettle. Kettle stands were designed with tripod legs and some were galleried to protect the expensive teakettles from any accidents. The height of the stand was perfectly suitable to enable the hostess to use the kettle in comfort. Kettle stands were strategically positioned near the hostess to ease her use of pouring the hot water. Our example below circa 1765, perfectly epitomises the classic mid 18th century kettle stand. It retains a wonderful gadrooned edge silver plate gallery. It also has a delightful baluster turned stem and ends on a tripod base, which is all paradigmatic of the traditional kettle stand from this period.