Because I am currently spending most of my time at home, as are many of you, I’ve been thinking more and more often to the domestic setting. While most of us aren’t being served tea in 18th-century country houses, in these unprecedented times we might be rethinking our relationships with our own interior spaces. As someone passionate about paintings, I have been reflecting on the many different ways in which interior spaces and everyday occupations were represented in the history of European art.
I chose two examples from the 18th century, a period when the depiction of contemporary interior spaces and objects from daily life had become widespread, revealing precious details about decoration and furnishing taste.
There is something very appealing in the informality and domesticity of these pictures that make you think about how life was lived and what people used to do at home. It was the time when drinking tea became an essential component of the European, and especially British, way of life. It also signaled the growth of global trade and the development of new trends coming from distant cultures.
One of my favorite paintings at the Getty Museum in this respect is the portrait of John, Fourteenth Lord Willoughby de Broke, and His Family, painted in about 1766 by Johann Zoffany.
Born in 1733 in Frankfurt, Zoffany studied in Germany and completed his apprenticeship in Italy. In 1760 he moved to London, where he enjoyed the patronage of the Royal family and became famous for his fashionable portraits and “conversation pieces.”
He has been sometimes labeled as the inventor of this new genre, an informal group portrait, showing people—often families, sometimes groups of friends – in domestic interiors or garden settings, which became very popular at the time. In these pictures, particular care is devoted to a meticulous rendering of furniture, decor, clothing, and other accessories, all elements that became important indicators of social status, wealth, culture and “good taste.”
In this painting, a wealthy family is on view in a sparse room, that reveals something about the family’s social position. Only an ancient, titled family of the British ruling class would adopt the deliberate casualness of the olive-drab walls and worn carpet.
We see John Peyto-Verney, fourteenth Lord Willoughby de Broke, in a brown frock suit and red waistcoat trimmed with gold, and his wife, Lady Louisa North. They appear about to take tea with their three young children. Lady Louisa is seated, holding her daughter, Louisa, who stands on the table attempting a first step, but her attention is attracted by their eldest son, John, who enters from the right pulling a bright red wooden horse on wheels. The younger son, George, on the other side, tries to take a piece of buttered bread from the table while receiving an admonishing gesture from his father. The two boys wear gowns, as it was customary in Europe until an age that varied between two and eight.
The painting is permeated by a playful mood and there is a clear emphasis on openly displayed affect. Lord Willoughby is an attentive and affectionate father, but he is also at the summit of a triangular composition, expressive of his role as head of the family.
Since 1763 John Peyto-Verney had enjoyed the position of Lord of His Majesty’s Bedchamber and the commission of the painting could well have been inspired by the recent conversation pieces that Zoffany had executed for King George III and Queen Charlotte.
The family is depicted in the morning or breakfast room at their beautiful country house, Compton Verney in Warwickshire, which Lord Willoughby was then remodeling according to plans submitted by the prominent Scottish neoclassical architect, Robert Adam.
Every detail in this apparently informal composition is carefully rendered: Lady Louisa’s shimmering light blue gown, the landscape painting with its rich gilded frame above the elegant fireplace mantel, the fine China porcelain tea service, and the reflections on the highly polished silver urn (which remains in the possession of the descendants of the family today).
Chinese porcelain and tea-drinking were the rage of European elites when Zoffany was painting this portrait, and by about 1750 tea had become the British national drink. The Chinese had consumed tea for thousands of years, mainly as a medicinal drink. The first leaves were brought to Europe in the early 17th century by the Dutch East India Company and the drink became fashionable in countries such as France, Russia, and England.
In the 18th century, the price dropped, and black tea overtook green tea in popularity, and its consumption became really widespread, being sold by grocers and tea shops. Tea was offered at simple, informal family gatherings, or at more staged social events, becoming almost synonymous with conversation, a ritual described in many British novels at the time.
The popularity of tea in 18th-century Europe is confirmed by another painting in Getty’s collection, Still Life: Tea Set, painted in the early 1780s by the Swiss artist Jean-Etienne Liotard. It depicts a delicate Chinese famille-rose porcelain tea set (decorated in the so-called Mandarin or Image pattern) upon a tray of painted tin, known as tôle, a cheap imitation of Asian lacquer.
Despite the lack of human presence, the evident disarray indicates that the tea party has already happened or was suddenly interrupted. There are cups (without handles) and saucers, each with its matching silver teaspoon, with all the other tea-things needed for service: a teapot, a sugar bowl filled with lumps of sugar, with an elaborate pair of silver tongs, a water jug, a slop bowl, and a lidded canister of tea leaves. There is also a matching plate, on which bread and butter have been served. Liotard’s careful painting reveals the pale greenish-brown hue of Bohea (the trade name of an Oolong tea grown in the Wuyi Mountains of northern Fujian, China). Its bright transparent clarity indicates that, as was common, it had been consumed without milk.
These two paintings are for me a powerful reminder not only of the important role that tea drinking had in 18th-century Europe and how it became fashionable, but also of the long and complex history of the trade and use of tea leaves in many different cultures around the globe for more than two millennia, from China to Japan, to India, to Russia, and many other countries. They show that the world was already global before globalism.
A beautiful distraction, thank you. I started following The Getty because of your promotion of people recreating famous artworks at home with regular objects, but I’ve gotten so much more out of it.
I be very much enjoyed reading your review
Lovely job on this piece, David! I took a mental trip back to the late 1800s in England with you. I have always appreciated the Getty collection’s painting Still Life: Tea Set. I think the museum used to sell a postcard of it. Wish I still had it now.
Enjoying some delightful tea as I write.
Thank you wonderful Mr. Gasparetto!
I enjoyed your essay very much. I was introduced to Johann Zoffany in 2011 at the Yale Center for British Art retrospective of his work. This article brought back fond memories. I am impressed with your research into the family and its residence in Warwickshire and I previously did not know that young English and European boys were dressed in gowns. We are never too old to learn something new.
Not just Europeans, young American boys were also dressed in gowns. It’s very interesting how this would seem strange today.
Thank you. This was a great diversion and made me feel like I took a mini-trip to the museum.
Loved this article. PS I turn the cup over to drain the tea and then turn it back to read the leaves.
This was great information and visuals —thank you very much! Fun facts to feed our soul during the shelter in place!
Y. Sheree McPeak
Thank you for such an informative and interesting article. I was particularly interested in your comments of the details within each painting, showing the appreciation not only of the overall painting, but what they were showing us, the viewer of the life of the times.
Thank you. This is something to continue beyond the stay-at-home time…it’s a way to get more in-depth into a single painting and style without the need to see other paintings and galleries, as might be the case on a visit to the museum. It also is a way to share the collection beyond the walls of the museum.
Thank you for this lovely lesson. The Getty has always been a refuge, and I miss my visits. Your insight is super. Beauty and knowledge help fight the blues in this sad period of illness and global distress.
Thank you for the interpretation in words. Very interesting and educational. The history of “tea” has elements from all over the world. My 2 grandchildren and I (ages 5 and 2) often at a round lacquered table with pawed legs. When they are telling me something the “tea party” table is used as a reference. We too all like it clear, maybe with a sugar cube for the children. I enjoyed your post very much.
Enjoyed this. I would like you to narrate so we could look at the picture while we listen to your voice. Lots more please.
I appreciate your passion about paintings and commend you on your review and ease of communicating your thoughts and insights about tea time and life during the 18th century. Known as the “tea lady” I am especially interested in everything related to tea. Should you encounter any other tea paintings , please let me know.
Thank you so much for informing me about the tea treasured paintings you encountered. Wonderfully written and in fact “tea”rrific!”
Is Still Life:Tea Set usually on display at the Getty? I don’t remember seeing it and would like to make a point to view it once the world rights itself. Thank you so much for this interesting essay.
Thanks for this essay. Very informative. And, despite having visited the Getty numerous times, I don’t recall having seen these paintings. Now I will look for them.
This is what I love about paintings-the story that they share with us.
In effect, globalism is just a modern word.
I so enjoyed learning about the Willoughby’s and the fact their Tea Urn remains in the family to this day. My husband is an artist and in one of his paintings Is Of my mother preparing a Christmas dinner in the 1950’s. On the prep table sits a green enameled Dutch Oven filled with red cabbage, a traditional side dish at every holiday meal. I still use that Dutch Oven to this very day and it continues to be were red cabbage is made during every holiday season.
Wonderful essay! Very interesting to hear that only an old and titled family would have had olive drab walls and a worn carpet. Must be where the idea of “ old money” comes from. As an interior designer, I’m always looking to bring a sense of that to new homes. Time, a relaxed attitude and personal experience is what still makes a house a home. Thank you
I so enjoyed the Behind the Scenes at the Getty. I had to back to the painting numerous times to see what I had missed. So much fun! This prompts me to really LOOK at the painting and have a greater appreciation for the work of art. Thank you so much,
I’m reminded of the self-guided audio tour of the Getty works of art. This narrative is just as meditative as the recorded ones and I’m sure just as melodic, if read out loud. Stay awesome, Getty Museum!
Love your perspective on tea as an already-global enterprise in Europe. Given the importance of our current moment for BLM, I would be interested in looking at connections between our consumption and how products got to us back then, relating to how it continues today, looking at consumerism through the lens of the people who are exploited. This is such an old trend, and it could be a moment when history could really change how we move forward in creating products with a more fair trade focus. Thank you for your consideration
Lovely initiative. Great work.