‘A-R-T’ and ‘T-E-A’: two very small words with a big connection. Let’s not get off to a confused start… I’m not trying to tell you that the contents of your kitchen cupboard are auction-worthy, that your office tea slave is the next Picasso or that your morning mugful is a masterpiece in the making. Nor am I launching a fierce campaign to see a soggy teabag win the Nobel Prize for Art. I simply wish to draw your attention to the generally unappreciated value placed upon the tea leaf in the world of art. Why am I doing this? Hidden amongst the shadows of great masterpieces and swarms of magnus opera lay paintings and posters, wondrous and breathtaking, depicting the act of drinking tea. A patron of the tea world, I implore you to follow me into the misty shadows of the art world as I shed light on those forgotten gems, torch in hand.
Henri Meunier – Affiche pour le café Rajah (1897)
So, artistic value eh? Well, you don’t necessarily have to go to a gallery to see it. Look closely and you’ll see that the art of tea drinking is all around. It is etched into the cardboard tea cartons that adorn the supermarket shelves. It is denoted by the dedication of tea companies across the land to develop and diffuse its riches (ahem, Chateau Rouge). Even 21st century trends and technological advances have failed to sweep the tea leaf under the carpet. The rise of Instagram, of blogging and the ‘city hipster’ has bestowed a chic persona upon that little cup of warmth: armies of à la mode free spirits are being pictured slurping away at their green tea-filled Emma Bridgewater mugs as you read this. It’s not a trend, it’s a revolution.
That’s not to say that sipping hasn’t seeped its way into the fine art world. Take for instance the work of Henri Meunier. Although originally commissioned by Le Café Rajah (a coffee company) in 1897, what’s to say the woman in Meunier’s masterpiece isn’t slurping away at a cup of Darjeeling? To me, Meunier’s woman wholly embodies the elegance, the sensuality, the beauty that remains ever synonymous with the act of tea drinking.
Claude Monet – “Tea Set” (1872)
But if you’re looking for the quintessential artistic expression of the beauty of tea, look no further than ol’ Claude Monet (modestly regarded as the greatest impressionist the world has ever seen). He may be famous for his summer scenes, but delve a little deeper and you’ll see that he had a bit of a soft spot for a cup of tea. In fact, Monet dedicated painting after painting to capturing the panoply of elements that form the essence of the cup of tea, from chintzy china to the afternoon rendezvous.
Claude Monet – “The Luncheon” (1873)
So, Meunier, Monet… They’ve produced some pretty spiffing works of art. All paintbrushes and perspectives aside, the art of tea drinking remains nonetheless a very personal affair. For some, there is art in the chipped, tea-stained mug on the kitchen counter; for others there is art in the fine china tea cups reserved for ‘special’ occasions; for most, and definitely for me, art is manifest in the rumbling of the kettle, in the chinking of the spoon, in the gurgle of the water as it meets the mug and in that first, ever-cautious, ever-enchanting sip. Ahh.
By Alexandra Simpson – read what else she’s got to say on the small matter of tea: www.theteaisle.wordpress.com