Definitely more of a journey than simply an exhibition, A Tea Journey: From the Mountains to the Table is a walk across the continents to explore the history and cultural significance of tea through the centuries.
We followed the outwardly unimpressive leaf of that small shrub, Camellia sinensis, on its hugely impressive rise from a medicinal plant China over five thousand years ago to the cornerstone of British culture by the end of the 19th century. It is now grown on every continent except Antarctica and in at least sixty countries around the world. There are over 150 works of art, from historic teaware originating in India, Japan and China alongside contemporary works by Claire Partington, Robin Best and Phoebe Cummings.
We saw Britain’s oldest sample of tea, dating to around 1700, and learned how tea went from being the preserve of the upper classes to a valued addition to every household within the space of 100 years. There is poetry about tea and paintings about tea, as well as a vast range of ceramic wares such as tea bowls. Many of the exhibition artifacts have been borrowed from some of Britain’s most prestigious museums like the V&A, The British Museum and The National Gallery.
There is also an exploration of the darker side of tea and its trade: how tea, rather like sugar, was a commodity of the slave trade, and how the opium trade and the Opium Wars were started by the British because of the Empire’s desperate desire for Chinese tea. It also examines the theft of tea seedlings from China and their importation into India so that the British could grow their own tea, and the human cost involved in transporting the tea from India back to the UK on the huge tea Clipper ships.
A tea ceremony house made of bamboo and paper highlights the Japanese tea ceremony and how this inspired and still inspires Japanese architecture and teaware. It was designed by Kazuhiro Yahima in 2010 and this is the first time it has left Japan.
Perhaps most exciting of all is The Tea Sensorium, a multi-sensory area dedicated to allowing visitors to taste and smell the flavours this one plant is its many forms. Dragonfly Tea, based in Berkshire, have supplied the exhibition with teas of every kind from the very familiar black and green to oolong, rooibos and Pu’er, all of which can be sampled.
The exhibition opened on 6 July 2019 and runs until 22 September 2019 at Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park, Warwickshire, CV35 9HZ, UK. Admission is £14.50 for adults, £13.50 for concessions, £5.50 for children.
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