A Tea Journey: From the Mountains to the Table

6 July – 22 September 2019

Tea is often thought of as being a quintessentially British drink, and we have been drinking it for over 350 years. But in fact, the history of tea goes much further back. The absorbing new summer exhibition at Compton Verney takes visitors on a global journey across time and continents exploring the cultural significance of tea from the plant to the pot.

I know I’m not everybody’s cup of tea. I’m just me. Mel B

Tea has inspired all manner of artistic expression; from ceramics, to paintings, to poetry. This exhibition includes over 150 works of art and tea ware from as far back as the Tang Dynasty right up to contemporary artists such as Phoebe Cummings and Julian Stair.

I would rather have a cup of tea than sex. Boy George

There is also a Tea Sensorium where visitors can take part in a range of creative & multi – sensory activities. I was invited to lift the lid off nine tea chests to explore the different smells of Green Tea, Jasmine, Darjeeling and Camellia, amongst others.

Never trust a man, who when left alone with a tea cosy… Doesn’t try it on. Billy Connolly

Visitors can also have a go at designing their own tea pots, cups & saucers, in one of the clay workshops by Walsall born artist Phoebe Cummings.

Phoebe Cummings

I really enjoyed learning all about sprig moulding & other hand building techniques. Her unfired clay structures, inside a temporary, moist structure called ` An Ugly Aside`, especially created for this exhibition, are all beautiful, gentle and tantalizingly delicate. The fragile leaves, fruit and plant structures of Phoebe Cummings work is simply stunning.

My favourite dinner is a cup of tea and a ham sandwich with English mustard. Marco Pierre White

The exhibition opens with a rare Chinese painted scroll which navigates a journey through the Wuyi mountains. Britain`s oldest sample of tea is also on display as well as specially commissioned art & poetry.

Having once been a Geography teacher for many years, I simply loved Tea Time Britain by Bouke de Vries 2019, created from broken fragments of blue-and-white China cups & saucers produced in regions such as Staffordshire and Worcester.

I liked being a teenager, but I would not go back there for all the tea in China. Rob Lowe

Porcelain with moulded panels c1760

I loved the assortment of ornate teapots, some extremely valuable and artistic, such as the beautiful blue & cream Wedgewood, others more playful and comical such as the modern cartoon smirking Tiger Tea pot.


There was also a display of Tea Caddies, some highly decorative and ornate. There was one caddy which caught my eye which appeared to have a John Constable landscape painting on it. I discovered it was not a Constable at all, but it reflected the high quality of work applied to a tea caddy, in this case one also made from papier-mâché!

I drink just as much tea when I’m in Los Angeles as I do when I’m in London. I take my tea bags with me wherever I go. Helen Mirren

The exhibition was inspired by the 1766 Johan Zoffany painting of the William de Broke family, who once owned and lived at Compton Verney, showing the family, about to drink some tea. The depiction of the tea ware was as important as the people in the painting, showing off their wealth with an assortment of quality tea ware shown on the table. The original tea urn and tea bowls from the painting were displayed in the adjacent showcase.

I was always brought up to have a cup of tea, halfway up a rock face. Bear Grylls

I hadn’t realised there were so much artwork which were centred around tea or the tea party as a theme. I particularly liked, A Cottage Interior: An Old Woman Preparing Tea by William Redmore Bigg 1793. (V&A) The little table is set with the old lady’s frugal meal of bread, butter and tea. She sits before a small fire of twigs, where her kettle is boiling. The teapot, cup and saucer, knife and tea caddy on the table are carefully painted. A beautiful painting.

I got some nasty habits; I take tea at three. Mick Jagger

The Tea Party 1727 by Richard Collins. (V&A)

The Tea Party shows a fashionable family sitting around a tea table, laden with valuable silver and porcelain enjoying some tea. They show their knowledge about drinking tea by demonstrating the three correct ways in which to hold a cup of hot tea. The silver tea service is a typical of the first half of the 18th century. It includes a sugar dish, a tea canister, sugar tongs, a hot-water jug, a spoon boat with teaspoons, a slop bowl and a teapot with a lamp beneath it to keep the contents hot. An almost identical tea set is on display next to the painting, complete with blue-and-white porcelain tea cups, which, in the Chinese manner, have no handles.

I don’t know what’s happened to me. I’ve got a bit more sophisticated in my old age. I like a bit of jasmine tea. I love it. Danny Dyer

Grand Tea Master Soshin Kimura

One of the highlights of the exhibition for me was the Japanese Tea Ceremony. It was conducted by Tea Master Sochin Kimura of the Hoshinaki School, Kyoto, Japan which involved the slow, deliberate movements to produce matcha. The finely ground powder of specially grown, processed green tea leaves produces a bowl of powdered green tea. The way it is performed by the Master is called temae. At the conclusion I was presented with  a bowl of the green tea, which was surprisingly refreshing and full of taste.

Kazuhiro Yajima & The Umbrella Tea House

The Umbrella Tea House was constructed from Bamboo, non-woven fabric and tatami mats by contemporary architect Kazuhiro Yajima.
Based on the idea of sharing a moment with someone under an umbrella or parasol, his structure is made from bamboo and paper, materials often associated with Japanese culture. The bamboo in particular echoes its traditional use as a material in the construction of a tea house and in the form of the tea ceremony whisk and tea scoop

Tea Ware

Old maids sweeten their tea with scandal. Josh Billings

I was reminded quite recently of the cultural significance of tea and its association with British history. After beating the English Women’s Football team in the Women’s World Cup Semi – final, the American captain celebrated their victory over the English with a gesture which mimed `sipping a cup of tea`. Some journalists commented it was a reference to the Boston Tea Party of 1773, in which an entire shipment of tea chests was thrown into Boston harbour as a political protest by American Patriots against the British Parliament’s tax on tea. “No taxation without representation.”

Childrens Tea Set

Tea makes everything better. Bindi Irwin

Whether or not, this was the motive for her gesture only reinforces the significance and importance of these `tea` events in British history. People from around the world continue to associate the British strongly with their passion for tea. References to tea drinking abound in the English language; Rosie Lee, the nectar of the Gods, builder’s tea, not my cup of tea, a nice cup of tea, a quick brew up, cup of char and many others, far too many to mention.

I still get nervous about singing. I drink tea with honey and lemon before every concert. Mary J. Blige

Tea Revives The World Gill MacDonald

I really enjoyed the exhibition. I learnt a great deal about the history of tea and its importance in our culture and was fascinated by the wide range of art, which has been created with tea as their inspiration, the preparation of tea, paintings, ceramics, the drinking of tea, utensils, caddies and tea pots. A whole world of Art centred around everything and anything to do with Tea!

Brewing a good cuppa is something not everyone can do, and I loathe bad tea. Rod Stewart

Compton Verney

If like me, you love Tea get yourself along to this fascinating, fun and informative exhibition, you will not be disappointed. Or go along with friends to the Tea in the Park on Sunday 18th August for a garden party with a difference. Take in the exhibition, join in the numerous workshops, talks and demonstrations for all the family and drink Tea, of course! Children will be able to join the Mad Hatters Tea Party, meet Alice in Wonderland and all her friends. Sounds like a fantastic day to me.

See you there!

A Tea Journey: From the Mountains to the Table

Sat 6 July- Fri 11 October 

Compton Verney


CV35 9HZ

01926 645 500


Twitter: @ComptonVerney

A Short History of Tea:

The story of tea is described throughout the exhibition in some detail, its roots strongly based in China. According to legend, in 2737 BC, the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled drinking water, when some leaves from the tree blew into the water. Shen Nung, a renowned herbalist, decided to try the infusion that his servant had accidentally created. The tree was a Camellia sinensis, and the resulting drink was what we now call tea. It is impossible to know whether there is any truth in this story, but tea drinking certainly became well established in China many centuries before it had even been heard of in the West.

Tea, that most quintessential of English drinks, is a relative newcomer to British shores. Although the custom of drinking tea dates to the third millennium BC in China, it was not until the mid – 17th century that the beverage first appeared in England. The use of tea spread slowly from its Asian homeland, reaching Europe by way of Venice around 1560, although Portuguese trading ships may have contacted the Chinese as early as 1515. It was the Portuguese and Dutch traders who first imported tea to Europe, with regular shipments by 1610. One of many reasons why England was a latecomer to the tea trade was because the East India Company did not capitalise on tea’s popularity until the mid-18th century.

It was the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza that would prove to be a turning point in the history of tea in Britain. She was a Portuguese princess, and a tea addict, and it was her love of the drink that established tea as a fashionable beverage first at court, and then among the wealthy classes. The first tea shop for ladies opened in 1717 by Thomas Twining of Twining’s fame and slowly tea shops began to appear throughout England making tea available to everyone. The British further developed their love of teas during the years of the British Empire in India.

Exactly 361 years ago, the first advert for tea in England appeared in a publication describing it simply as a “China Drink.” A couple of years later, the diarist Samuel Pepys wrote about drinking tea in his diary entry from September 1660. “I did send for a cup of tee, (a China drink) of which I had never had drunk before”. The Chines called it t`cha, hence a cup of char!

The British took to tea with an enthusiasm that continues to the present day. It became a popular drink in coffee houses, which were as much locations for the transaction of business as they were for relaxation or pleasure. They were though the preserve of middle- and upper-class men; women drank tea in their own homes, and yet tea was still too expensive to be widespread among the working classes. In part, its high price was due to a punitive system of taxation. It was being sold in British coffee shops in the 17th Century but it was mainly the wealthy who enjoyed a nice cuppa as it was still considered expensive. By the mid – 18th century, however, tea had become Britain’s most popular beverage, replacing ale and gin as the drink of the masses.

Tea bags were invented in America in the early twentieth century, but sales only really took off in Britain in the 1970s. Nowadays it would be hard for many tea-drinkers to imagine life without them. Such is the British enthusiasm for tea that even after the dismantling of the Empire, British companies continue to play a leading role in the world’s tea trade and British brands dominate the world market.

With recent scientific research indicating that tea drinking may have direct health benefits, we now know that drinking four cups of tea a day may help maintain your health, it is assured that for centuries to come there will be a place at the centre of British life for a nice cup of tea. Researchers have found that moderate consumption of tea can reduce your chance of death from a heart attack by at least a fifth. Tea is also an important natural source of fluoride that can help protect against tooth decay and gum disease.