For historians, visual images can sometimes supply important information in situations where textual documentation is lacking.
Part of my dissertation on the history of tea culture in the Russian empire concerns the evolution of European tea ware and its introduction into Russia in the eighteenth century. That investigation has led me on a search for the earliest known visual depictions of tea drinking in Europe, and what these can tell us about how the first European tea drinkers brewed, sipped, stirred, and decanted their tea.
In fact, the very first post I wrote for this blog was a very brief description of a painting commonly attributed to Richard Collins (d. 1732). Known simply as “Family of Three at Tea,” the canvas features a domestic group sitting down to tea with their little dog. No one really knows who painted it, and it was probably finished sometime around 1727.
In the first half of the eighteenth century, and especially in the 1730s, portraits of wealthy British families typically depicted the sitters in their finest clothes and displaying their finest possessions. The consumer revolution was just beginning, and affluent elites lined up to have paintings made that would showcase their expensive taste and attention to current fashion. During this period, there were few better ways to show off one’s wealth, status, and refinement than to commission a portrait of your family drinking tea. Tea was a fashionable, expensive luxury enjoyed by those few who could afford not only the pricey imported leaf, but also fine Chinese porcelains and the latest designs in English domestic silver. William Hogarth’s 1730 painting “The Wollaston Family" is a fine example of this trend. (Note how each member of the group on the right is demonstrating that they know how to hold teacups and teapots properly.)
Thus it is not surprising that Richard Collins, or whoever painted “Family of Three at Tea,” should have chosen to depict his subjects holding expensive porcelain cups and sitting in such a way that their fabulously expensive matching tea service is displayed prominently in the foreground.
What did surprise me, though, was this painting, which I found later. This one was done by Joseph Van Aken (1699-1749), a Flemish painter who spent most of his career in England, and is dated 1725, so probably within the same five-year period as the Collins painting.
Even a cursory glance shows that the Collins and Van Aken paintings are virtually identical. The headgear of the man and woman are the same. The family’s poses, down to that of the little dog, are very similar. But most importantly, for my purposes, the tea service is unmistakably the same.
Not the same as in, both families probably bought the same tea set from a department store. No. In the 1720s, a set of silver tea implements that matched each other was stupid expensive. In the 1720s, English silversmiths were not mass producing tea silver. The market for it was just too small, and mass production would not emerge for about another century. Virtually all tea vessels, like the kettle and stand featured in both paintings, were custom made to order. Sheffield plate would not be invented until 1742, which meant that these pieces were not just plated, they were solid silver. If I owned that tea service, I’d have it painted into my family portrait too. And probably buried with me.
That means that the tea ware in these two paintings is the same tea ware. The very same objects. Either that, or Collins (whose painting was probably made after Van Aken’s) simply copied Van Aken’s painting, substituting only the human figures and copying the tea service wholesale.
Why would Collins (assuming it was Collins) have done this? I really have no idea, but I can furnish a few educated guesses. Possibly the family who sat for Collins’s portrait borrowed the tea service so that they could look wealthy and fashionable in their picture. Alternatively, perhaps they simply wanted a portrait that included a tea service, and Collins, maybe because he lacked access to a real tea service, used the tea ware in Van Aken’s painting as a model.
And, as a matter of fact, there is a third painting. The compositional resemblance of this one to the other two is not quite so compelling, but the similar tea ware is unmistakable. And the two figures are certainly the same father and child featured on Van Aken's canvas.
We don’t have any idea who painted this one, but it’s dated about 1720. If it really was painted in or around 1720, that makes it the original prototype for both of the other two. Since the man in the painting is identical, down to the hooked nose, to the man in the Van Aken painting, it seems reasonable to assume that this may have been an early study of Van Aken's for his later painting.
There is certainly a mystery here, which, if solved, could tell us a lot not only about art history and portraiture during this period, but also about the social function of tea drinking and tea-related material culture in the 1720s and 1730s. Whatever the relationship between these three paintings, it’s clear that having one’s portrait painted with a tea service was highly desirable among those who could afford it. Tea, along with other colonial products like coffee, tobacco, and chocolate, helped drive the massive changes in consumer habits and domestic life that developed hand in hand with the Industrial Revolution. And, incontrovertibly, many English families wanted to be remembered as tea drinkers. That's not such a bad legacy, in my opinion.