English Tea Study Course

Tea set: Jean Etienne Liotard
Still Life: Tea Set by Jean Etienne Liotard circa 1783 © J Paul Getty Museum

The Evolution of the English Afternoon Tea-Table 1660 – 2021 

The English Tea Study Course explores the activity of the English afternoon tea table as a developing ritual through three and a half centuries. 

English Afternoon Tea-Tables offer a way to into the constructed assemblage of its material objects (the tea paraphernalia, food and drink) and social history of their times. Through this course we will look at a wide variety of English tea tables and their cargo, from the grand to the modest, from 1660-2021.  

The contextual significance of the English Tea-Table varies hugely by date and region and whether located within the domestic or public sphere. The early 18th Century tea-table provided an opportunity to advertise the wealth and values of their owners, whilst its performative function directed the social engagement within, and between, the homes of the elite classes.  It acted as a repository for collections of tea-related objects, food and drink, all of which exhibited fashion, taste and wealth. As society has changed, each successive generation has embraced and adapted the idea of the 18th Century afternoon tea-table and its customs.  

We shall look at the people who have adopted the practice, the objects they use, and the food and drink they consume. Studying their surroundings, their lives and their aspirations, helps us gain a sense of how tea has played a role in the social life of numerous and various homes across the United Kingdom. 

The contents of this study course will be spread across four modules. The focus of study will be of the material: paintings, contemporary essays, reports, household manuals, diaries, novels and objects.  

Arrival of tea in Europe and the early tea-tables.

  • The dream of the East
  • Studying the social context; feudal hierarchy in the UK and Europe when tea arrived and how this shaped behaviour
  • Social Identity and the importance of chivalry
  • Structure of social life and commercial life
  • Differences and similarities of life in town and country
  • The home and its role in daily and social life   

Components of the tea table: 1. The tea paraphernalia, vessels and tools 

  • Forms and designs of the objects 
  • Early Chinese and Japanese porcelain designs 
  • Why particular designs adopted in Europe 
  • Soft and hard paste porcelain,  
  • Objects that have disappeared, become obsolete 
  • Objects and tools that have appeared as the role of the tea table changed 
  • Semiotics and symbolism  

Components of the tea table: 2. The food and the drink 

  • Presence of breads and sponge cakes on the early afternoon tea table 
  • Changing foods – what has stayed, what has disappeared transitional foods, hot foods 
  • Looking at cookery books and manuals  
  • Tea from China, India and Africa
  • Role of milk and sugar 

Proliferation: the numerous performative ‘teas’ today. 

  • A brief study of changes in use of language. 
  • Differences and similarities between the present-day hotel Afternoon Tea, High Tea, Tea (the evening meal), Tea (in the afternoon) Cream Tea, Garden Parties, Wedding receptions, Cricket teas,  
  • Whose codes of behaviour are dominant at each event. Is it Tea that drives the narrative or the person whose demand is most dominant/agent whose voice is most insistent?   
  • Which iterations are social events, which ones are for sustenance? 
  • Manifestation of metaphors and myths around tea to fill gaps of information (eg. Anna, Duchess of  Bedford, “inventor” of Afternoon Tea). 
  • Distinctions between public and private life.   
  • 21st Century Afternoon Tea – the performance of the hotel pastry chef and maitre de in the public space 

Course aims: 

This course will enable participants to explore the multifaceted nature and development of the English tea table through its the constructed assemblage of its material objects (the tea paraphernalia, food and drink) as expressions of social relationships and values. 

This course will enable students to:  

  • Investigate the diverse elements of tea table culture: material, social and conceptual. 
  • Interpret the English tea table and its culture. 
  • Examine the development of the English tea table in its wider political, economic and social context. 

Learning outcomes: 

By the end of this course students will be expected to understand: 

  • The relationships between the objects, the food, the people and conceptual elements of the English tea table through progressive developments. 
  • The connections between the English tea table as an artefact/assemblage and social and political relationships. 
  • The manner in which successive generations both assimilate and modify this assemblage. 
  • The way in which these elements constitute a biography of the tea table as ‘read’ in the present. 

This course will be delivered online over Zoom. It will be made up of live presentations and tutorials plus small-group workshop sessions. A recommended reading list and relevant course notes will be available. 

Each module will run for approx. 2 hours with a 5-minute break halfway through. Students on the scheduled course will also have an optional one-hour tutorial that will be arranged at a mutually convenient time.   

Cost: £148.00

It is possible to book this course on mutually agreeable dates and times for private group bookings of ONE person up to six people.  Please contact Caroline to discuss suitable dates and times according to your time zone.  

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