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.