Captivated by Jean-Etienne Liotard’s ‘Still Life: Tea Set’

Jean-Etienne Liotard - Still Life Tea Set

Still Life: Tea Set,  1781-1783,  Jean-Etienne Leotard (Swiss, 1702-1789), Oil on canvas mounted on board. J Paul Getty Museum, Getty Centre, Museum South Pavilion, Gallery S203.  

I have quite fallen in love with this painting, which I only discovered recently in my continual quest to clarify the question,  ‘How and why is tea regarded as an English drink?’ For me this picture oozes sensuality that embodies the mystery and magic of Cathay, the country from which the tea has travelled. I just want to touch the delicately decorated porcelain and know more about the tea party that has just taken place.

What is it that we see in this picture?

We have a painted tole tray placed on a table. On the tray, the porcelain is decorated in the Chinese style (chinoiserie). There is a round bellied tea pot, a tea caddy, a lidded jug (either for milk or hot water), a bowl containing lumps of sugar, a plate containing some bread and butter, six tea bowls and saucers, and a large slop bowl into which any spent leaves can be placed. Each tea bowl and saucer has its own silver spoon and and there is a pair of silver sugar tongs sitting on the sugar bowl  to serve sugar into each cup.

What can I tell, just from looking at what is on display?

The delicate porcelain is likely to be European made and painted with what was perceived as Chinese imagery and fuelling our image of Cathay, “..… a continent of immeasurable extent lying just beyond the eastern confines of the known world. Of this mysterious and charming land, poets are the only historians and porcelain painters the most reliable topographers. …..  Even if creating the delicate porcelain in ‘the known world’ , the magical exoticism of the East was still highly aspirational.

The delicate pale colour of the tea is worth noting; a delicate Chinese tea, possibly green or oolong. It looks a delicate elixir that I long to taste. The richly dark tea that is now regarded as being English tea is really Indian or Ceylon in origin and did not appear in Europe before the 1840s and only exceeded the  volume  of China tea sales by the 1890s.

The tea bowls have no handles and, as far I can see and would expect, the saucers have no indent shape for the cup. The European tea sets of this period were likely to be made in sets of twelve tea bowls (that later had a handle attached), twelve coffee cans and twelve saucers that could be used for either. It was not anticipated that tea and coffee would be served at the same time. **

The plate of bread and butter is another point of interest. I have found this bread and butter plate appearing in paintings relating to tea drinking as early as 1720 and, having read numerous Nineteenth Century housekeeping and cookery books, there is evidence that suggests that bread and butter was served alongside tea as to drink tea without any food might be injurious to health. I have found we English were slightly obsessed with bread and butter, serving this alongside sandwiches or toast, muffins or tea cakes! But that is a topic for a blog post all on its own.

Do we know anything about the tea party attendees?

This picture depicts the end of the party – there is a general sense of disorder and mess however there is also a display of (English) tea drinking etiquette of the period. Some cups have been turned upside down or alternatively the spoons have been placed in the tea bowl. These actions both indicate that the guest no longer wish to be served any more tea – they know how to demonstrate this to their host without either person having to say anything. Even though no people are in the picture the owner of the picture would have known the messages being transmitted; sophistication, refinement and knowledge of polite behaviour.

How can we relate this to today’s drinking etiquette?

There are still echoes of this opaque behaviour today. You wait until your hostess offers you the tea (or the second cup of tea). If she forgets to serve you (people could sit, not saying a word until the hostess notices her error) it would almost be impolite to highlight her ‘impolite’ behaviour. Being direct is not the English way – rituals are played out with coded behaviour such as turning the cup upside down or putting the spoon within the cup. In the same way, if someone offers you something on the tea table such as the jam or some milk, make sure that you offer it back to them – their offer to you might be an indirect request.

What tea should you consider drinking to capture the magic of this picture?

Newby's 100g Gourmet Caddy - Prime DarjeelingMy modern day favourite would be a delicate darjeeling. I recommend Newby Teas Gourmet Darjeeling (pictured right). I like the fact this mainly a second flush Darjeeling which almost has more flavour than a first but if it is an early season picking then you get the very delicate Muscatel taste. Newby is what I call a risk taker in the world of tea in that they trust their judgement in finding you good teas rather than relying on the latest tea selling trends – most tea companies now are selling early season single estate first flush Darjeelings and sometimes these can be a little thin on flavour.

The Newby Prime Gourmet tea is not cheap at £48 for 100grams (at time of writing) however it is good value. It comes in a caddy and is vacuum packed sealed for freshness.

I brewed the Newby Prime Darjeeling tea using water off the boil, around 90 degrees (although technically this is classed as a black tea, and usually boiling water is recommend, this would just scorch the very delicate leaves). Just a glorious nectar-like flavour and I can visualise the taste of when looking at Jean-Etienne Liotard’s painting.

I  offer tours around the Victoria and Albert Museum to show how Chinoiserie and tea, the drink of Cathay became embedded in British life – I’d love you to join me if this is something you would like to learn more about.


Chinoiserie, The Vision of Cathay, Honour, Hugh, 1973, John Murray, London, p5.                                 ** A Cup of Tea, An Afternoon Anthology of Fine China and Tea Traditions, Geraldine Holt, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1991, p16.