‘At a time when we can see across the globe on devices we hold in our hands, it is hard to appreciate just how exotic life in China was to 18th-century Europeans,’ says Becky MacGuire, Senior Specialist in Chinese Export Art. ‘So many things we take for granted today — tea, silk, fireworks, pug dogs, even the peonies and magnolias in our gardens — were completely unknown in the West until early travellers encountered them in China.’
The specialist adds that we do not know who ordered this magnificent blue and white porcelain depicting tea cultivation, with its exuberant rococo borders, but most likely it was a Dutch China trade merchant made wealthy in the tea business.
The discovery of tea was particularly significant. As its popularity spread throughout Europe, its import became the economic driver of centuries of commerce. The Chinese Kangxi Emperor (1662-1722) had commissioned albums extolling tea cultivation and rice production, and the images in these famous imperial volumes became templates for a number of albums created by China Trade artists to sell to visiting Westerners.
‘Albums depicting the steps in the cultivation of tea are somewhat rare, and this decoration on porcelain is exceedingly rare,’ says MacGuire. As on Dutch Delft, the dishes are numbered with Arabic numerals on the reverse, although the numbering does not follow a proper order — no doubt due to the Chinese painter’s inability to understand what he had been given to copy.
‘Each dish shows us an essential step in the process of growing tea and preparing it for market, from harvesting leaves on the plantation, to drying them in large, circular baskets, to building the barrels in which to ship the resultant product,’ MacGuire explains. ‘I think my favourite is the one in which we see two Chinese tea merchants making a deal for that season’s sale, with a large abacus on the table between them.’
‘These dishes tell us the story of tea cultivation, but they also speak of the endless fascination China held for the Western world’
Under normal circumstances, a single dish in this rare pattern might come on the market every two to three years. This very rare grouping of 17 dishes was assembled over years by a couple from the American South who, says the specialist, ‘displayed them on the walls of a light-filled room in their handsome period house.’
In brilliant, deep, cobalt blue painting on hard, white Chinese porcelain — another material that had been previously unknown in the West — these dishes tell us the story of tea cultivation. ‘In addition,’ says MacGuire, ‘they also speak of the endless fascination China held for the Western world.’