‘A Cottage Interior – an Old Woman Preparing Tea’, William Redmore Bigg, 1793 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
When we think about present day iterations of ‘Tea’ as anything other than the beverage, the dominant presence of the fashionable, urban upper and elite classes overwhelms the silent majority of British tea drinkers. Despite being a very small landmass, Great Britain is made up of many different social groups. The groups fluctuate in terms of their social status, geographical location, whether urban or rural. These groups continue to change and merge into each other today.
Tea, the evening meal
Tea, the evening meal is not an afternoon tea (party), the social event that is associated with the genteel practice of paying social calls. It is also not High Tea, a similar form of repast that probably evolved from an institutional setting as opposed to the domestic space.
The origins of Tea, the evening meal
The above painting, is in store at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The artist, William Redmore Bigg (1755 – 1828) was known for his stylised genre paintings depicting rustic scenes and acts of charity.
The story of this picture is told not by actions, but by the objects displayed in it. The poverty is indicated by the exquisite depiction of the modest and unshowy nature of the few things on display. 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. Everything is carefully portrayed; the teapot, cup and saucer, knife and tea caddy on the along with the square wooden platter, with a circular hole for the salt, shown propped up on the shelf behind her.
Here we have an example of the ‘deserving’ poor. The placement of the objects show understanding of contemporary moral codes. The elderly woman’s home is basic in its furnishings yet she is to be applauded for knowing her place, in having tea-wares that are made of simple, understated yet not crude materials. She is shown to be cognisant of the ways of a gentleman and this imbues her with virtue. She does not presume to be an equal. Her body is turned away from the table, with no anticipation of participating in the social tea rituals of the arbiters of moral code, the rich, landowning elite.
Who is orchestrating the dance of agency in this narrative?
We, the viewers of the painting, are being shown a composition, an act of virtue in which tea is performing a role, all set within the stage of the picture frame. The painter shows us that he knows the rules, perhaps as an insider of the particular social group who controlled the message of the narrative. ‘The poor’ were deserving of the viewers’ interest if they complied with an idealised vision of poverty. In this idyll of the simpler life, the basic tools used in the performance of polite (gentlemanly) social interaction, the simple teapot, bread and butter, sugar (brown in this instance) are on display.
There is little sense in image of the sitter having any control in the narrative being presented. Does the viewer know or care whether she has anything else to consume apart from tea and the bread and butter?
This type of painting might have been commissioned or sold to members of the Tory landowning classes, for example those who appeared in the Conversation Pieces of Arthur Devis in the 1730s with their own props of exquisitely painted Chinese tea sets. These merchant classes aspired to the values of the feudal landowning knights of earlier generations. The picture would have provided them with the image that they wanted to see, the reinforced myth of the feudal knight taking an interest in his hardworking tenants. This fetishized perception is reinforced by the exquisite execution of the painting, and lulls the viewer into a false sense of the bucolic value of poverty.
This diet of tea with bread and butter (or dripping or margarine) became a cheap staple of the malnourished factory workers of the expanding industrial heartland of Great Britain and the urban poor of large city slums. Many of these had migrated from rural areas in their search for work of any kind. The hot cheap tea with lashings of sugar and served with the bread and butter provided an illusory, short-lived panacea of warm comfort in a harsh world of poverty. If there was a man in the family unit any few extra pennies might have been allowed for the addition of meat (a meat tea). This afforded him slightly more nutrition to support his performance as breadwinner for his half-starved, malnourished family. This meal was enjoyed at the of the working day.
The reality of this tea is a far cry from the image portrayed in Bigg’s painting. The starving factory worker, driven to become rebellious and uncouth in the necessity of getting his needs met, was ‘othered’ for his inability to comply with the myth, the idealised world of gentlemanly tea drinking.
Today the term tea, as an evening meal still exists. It still has a strong link to the descendants of those whose ancestors had a heritage of manufacturing, heavy industry or labour, and the areas of the country that they were located. This is predominantly the Midlands, Lancashire and Yorkshire and Glasgow in Scotland and large urban cities in the South such as London.
In a recent exhibition, A Tea Journey: From the Mountains to the Table at Compton Verney, 2019 this painting was displayed as an example of the democratisation of tea. I wonder if the sitter would feel she was the case if she could see herself stored in a repository of exclusive designed and valuable objects of the very rich?