This site has limited support for your browser. We recommend switching to Edge, Chrome, Safari, or Firefox.

Mid-Autumn Festival - Free Shipping to Worldwide.

Shopping Cart

Your cart is empty

Continue Shopping

Tea And Conversation Piece

Angus Trumble

close by those Meads for ever crown'd with Flow'rs, Where Thames with Pride surveys his rising Tow'rs, There stands a Structure of Majestick Frame,Which from the neighb'ring Hampton takes its Name. Here Britain's Statesmen oft the Fall foredoom Of Foreign Tyrants, and of Nymphs at home; Here Thou, great Anna! whom three Realms obey,Dost sometimes Counsel take - and sometimes Tea.

Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock

THESE OPENING LINES from Part 3 of Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lack (1712 - 1714) illustrate the seriousness of tea drinking in England in the second decade of the eighteenth century, only a few years after the Act of Union (1707) created the modern concept of "Britain." Here, in the final couplet, matters of state and intimate domesticity converge in the person of Queen Anne at Hampton Court Palace, Although the point is satircal - implying a collision of pomposity with presumed triviality—it is telling that Pope chose tea as the fulcrum of his reparative wit, while the rhyme scheme incidentally reveals that in 3714 the English ward "tea" still retained its French pronunciation (Jordan 1934,220,222). The brilliant antithetical conceit in the last line merely underscored what Pope's earliest readers already knew well, that taking counsel at court and taking tea were, more often than not, exactly the same thing. It is no accident therefore that an English portrait type soon developed in which tea and increasingly public sociability were often synonymous.

A "conversation picture" or "conversation piece" is t small-scale portrait consisting of two or more full-length figures, mostly bat not always members of the same family, dressed informally in modern-day costume; grouped either indoors or outside in a park landscape; often accompanied by some of their favorite pets, furniture and other possessions, and servants - in that order. Developed in England in the 1720s and perfected by William Hogarth, Gawen Humilton, Arthur Devis, Joseph Highmore, and others, the conversation piece reflected am increasing demand for small group portraits to suit more intimate early Georgian interiors than the picture galleries, great halls, and ceremonial corridors of Tudor and early Stuart houses of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Indeed these older buildings provided the sociopolitical, semipublic forum, as weE as the colossal amount of wall space, for large-scale, often full-length late Stuart portraits by Peter Godfrey Kneller, and others, a mode that persisted in non-British portraiture well into the mid-eighteenth century. By contrast, the conversation piece achieved remarkable popularity within a decade and persisted into the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

In its quiet way, the conversation piece represented more a change to format and scale than to function or rationale, at least from the Patron's point of view. Though quite different in size and format, in common with most earlier Stuart portraits, conversation pieces were generally commissioned to commemorate important dynastic events such as betrothals, marritges, the inheritance of property or titles, the assumption a pot particularly important seat in the House of or taking middle-level offices such as the lord-lieutenantship county, The genre was not one that appealed so much to Whig grandees and other powerful aristocrats; nor did it appeal to successive generations of Hanoverian royal patrons (Trumble 2007,249-50). Arthur Devis, the most prolific pointer of conversation pieces, produced more than three hundred examples, mostly for, members of the rapidly expanding, largely Tory landed gentry and professional classes.

Although the conversation piece has long been considered a uniquely English contribution to the history of early eighteenth-century European portraiture, recent scholarship has served to demonstrate the extent to which the small-scale conversation piece at least partly emerged from certain conventions in nearly contemporaneous French genre painting, in which tea, coffee, and chocolate drinking are not merely conspicuous but to some degree explain or contextualize those social games that might be played in the boudoir and the closet (Eatwell 2008, 50-76). That French prompt arrived in London with artists such as Philippe Mercier, who did far more to inspire the development of the so-called Fancy Ricture - Pieces of some figures of conversation as big as the life: Conceited plaisant Fancies and habits," as George Vertue described the genre - than he gave rise to the conversation piece. Nevertheless, his impact upon Hogarth particular did mauch to insure that a fairly high proportion of English conversation pictures referred to tea.

Within the genre of the conversation piece, so evenly divided between outdoor settings and splendidly decorated rooms -which far more often reflect the future aspirations of the patron and his family than the actual appearance of existing dwdllings- it is more often the informality of the scene that hinges upon tea than those tedious questions of manners and precedence, which through the course of the eighteenth century increasingly clustered around the tea table, gradually transforming its habits into complex ceremonial.

In other words, the conversation piece generally asks us to take tea at face value, which is not to say that its value was high. Although the corner of the drawing room in which Devis portrayed Mr. and Mrs. Hill, circa 1750-1751 (fig. B.I) is unusually spare, it nevertheless contains a large oval italianate landscape, mounted high as an overmantel, and a Chinese blue-and-white covered export vase standing In the fireplace, suggesting almost certainly that it is summer. A Dutch stoneware teapot (a type produced in imitation of Kangxi brown-glazed export "Batavian-ware" Chinese prototypes) stands on the tea table, surrounded by an elegant porcelain service, which indicates that five guests are expected (Trumble 2007, 250). The cool precision with which these objects are drawn, and the daring spaciousness of the surrounding, here lay considerable emphasis on the accoutrements of tea.

But to what extent are those accoutrements intended to reflect the high status of the sitters, if at all? The question is complex as are the further questions: how high was the status of the Hills, or indeed how wealthy were they, or even how much this conversation piece cost. Mr. Hill adopts a position long recommended by etiquette mamials - not a habit made fashionable by Napoleon—with his feet positioned at an exact ninety-degree angle and his hand slipped inside his waistcoat. The attitude is aspirational. Mrs. Hill s exquisitely painted dress is expensive, but not excessively decorated, Mrs. Hills book, discarded on the mantel, tells us little except that it is apparently octavo and that there is only one of them. At best, many of these observations we may lay at the painter's feet, and not the patron's, but like many other conversation pieces that revolve around the tea table, and tea itself, the tea equipage was understood to be expensive and an increasingly indispensable mark of gentility. Similarly tea provided the logical narrative propulsion with which the as yet unidentified painter o(A Family Being Served With Tea, circa 1740-1745 (fig, B.2) gathered his dramatis personae: mother presiding over the tea tabic as was the custom, father two daughters, the family dogs, the artist himtelf - who appears seated at an easel in deftly drawn reflection in the body of the silver finally the servant who the krttle.

Representations of tea services - outside of the conversation piece genre - as subjects of still life on the comment, inch as the example by jean-Etienne Liotard (fig,B.3) or else as the dominant accoutrements of more tightly figured Dutch and Flemish half-length portraits (fig, B.4), perhaps carry the strongest possible indication that there is beyond the boundaries of each composition a radiating presence of human sociability for which the tea things stand in, In this respect, continental paintings of each type—delicate French still Iifes and robust Dutch food-and-drink portraits - sliare with those English conversation pieces that revolve around the tea table a capacity to see tea not only as leisure, but with some levelheadedness as money also.

Just as the English term "conversation piece" was originally taken to mean representations of people conversing, there is also a strong hint, especially as regards die tea table, that it might also embrace representations of people that could, In turn, from the viewer's perspective prompt or stimulate real conversation, Certainly this was the view of an anonymous critic who in November 1820 identified himself in print as "W." and reflected a widespread and long-standing division of opinion (at least since the seventeenth century) as to the actual benefits of the plant, but not of meeting to drink cups of hot water infused with its leaves:

Tea, for a plant of doubtful properties, has extended its influence so widely, that either mankind have solved the doubt individually by their patronage of the tea-pot, or they have determined to swallow, for sake of good company, what is "against the stomach of their sensed Now, I put it to some of your mathematical correspondents, what is the proportionable attraction of conversation at the tea-table, and of course, how much tea would remain unsold, and how much the [internal] revenue would lose, If every man should be compelled to drink his tea done? That there is a peculiar tone given to conversation tea, I will not pretend to assert; but we all know that there ii no such agreeable commingling of sentiment, and equanimity of spirit any where, as we find at a tea-table [NeWcastle Magazine 1820,149]

As much as there were other voices regularly raised earlier, in the mid-eighteenth century, "accusing tea of impairing the digestion, unstringing the nerves,involving great and useless expense and inducing symptoms of paralysis" (Wesley 1748,390), the conversation piece stands as persuasive evidence of its central role at the same time as a social lubricant and increasingly important status symbol among sitters who were amply prepared to run the risk, and to follow the prompts emanating from court, as in Pope's The Rape of the Lock. It raises the larger question as to whether the conversation piece could have achieved its wide currency in England without "the agreeable commingling of sentiment" afforded by tea.