Britishness set off to a ‘T’

The huge number of coffee shops in London might suggest that tea has ceased to be the British national drink but this restorative beverage is once again the smart drink, and teatime the meal of choice
Tea’s Up brings a contemporary twist to teatime
© Rachel Smith
Tea’s Up brings a contemporary twist to teatime
Tea’s popularity can be seen in London hotels, where it comes with all the trimmings. When it was first introduced to London in the 1650s, tea was expensive and rare. The drinking acquired its own specialised ritual; the detailed etiquette of tea drinking became the special preserve of the Lady of the House and was about showing off one’s status and wealth with all the finest accoutrements.

Dunking a teabag in a mug might be the norm today but proper tea-making is making a comeback, providing a perfect excuse to use beautiful tea things. A new exhibition called Tea’s Up at Contemporary Applied Arts demonstrates just how imaginative the tea table can be.

Its curator, David Clarke, is a teatime aficionado. “Tea is about opulence, decadence and generosity. Tea is a performance, a show, and so is Tea’s Up.

The whole space in the gallery will be taken up by a gigantic table set for tea, including the cakes,” he says.

Certainly, the contents of the Tea’s Up table are very covetable. All have been specially commissioned for the show by Clarke from a range of makers. Clarke himself is one of the world’s leading contemporary silversmiths, making all kinds of extraordinary pieces for the table, some of which star in the exhibition.

For Tea’s Up, Clarke has persuaded Jerwood prize winner Simone ten Hompel to create a new teapot, quite unlike any conventional or traditional teapot.

It has no obvious spout or handle and resembles a skewed cut-off sphere of matt silver topped by a circular hat of tea-leaf-green wood, which is both the lid and the handle. Below is a thin circle of silver that surrounds the pouring hole. Surprisingly, it pours well.

Because of Clarke’s background, silver features strongly on the tea table, yet like most of the objects in the show the pieces take a traditional idea and give it a contemporary twist, like the silver spoons by recent RCA graduate Susannah Wall, which appear to be shedding their skins like snakes.

Many of the makers in the show make reference to past traditions. Robert Dawson’s crockery is a play on the Willow pattern, taking it apart and recreating it for the 21st century, while Paul Scott decorates tea services with old Wedgewood transfers as a background but inserts screaming jet fighters across the idyllic pastoral scenes.

Kate McBride continues this subversive streak with her ornately patterned rococo porcelain teaware.

Lin Cheung Leung uses found cups and creates silver saucers in the shapes of the cups’ shadows, while Colin Saunders makes bountiful ceramic platters like overflowing meringues, and Cathy Miles confects ornate wire cake stands.

Tea’s Up runs until 17 October at Contemporary Applied Arts, 2 Percy Street, W1 (020 7436 2344; www.caa.org.uk).

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