Historically, civilizations have created myths and rituals around the drinking of tea. Both China and Japan had tea rituals and ceremonies, believing that “a cup of tea became a mirror of the soul” and all aspects of brewing, serving and drinking tea, represented the “art of living.” Tea was introduced to Western Europe in the 17thC, as the trade routes expanded. In France, Spain and Italy, tea was a status indicator as it was only consumed by the upper classes. In England, on the other hand, tea was a drink for everyone at all levels of the social hierarchy. To this day, “a nice cup of tea” is considered to be a clear, marker of English culture and identity.
In England, afternoon tea fulfills the role of a ritual tea ceremony which involves a specific syntax: first, the milk is poured into the cup, then the tea is poured, the sugar is then added and everything is stirred. Tea is consumed by delicately sipping, not by gulping or slurping, showing finesse and respect for the ritual.
Katka Adams’ Paintings and the Ritual of Afternoon Tea
The silver tea instruments are ornately designed, showing that they were crafted by skilled artisans and would be expensive. These items communicate the degree of formality associated with serving tea in an English home.
They symbolize refinement and good breeding, qualities that were very important during the height of the British Empire. The silver tea service would be brought to the guests on a silver tray, along with elegant cups and saucers and small cakes and sandwiches.
The three cups and saucers also communicate the graciousness and formality of the English tea rituals. There is decoration around the rims of each cup and saucer, indicating that they are high-end china. The lace doily under the first cup and saucer adds to the degree of civility while the spoons in the second and third cups confirm that drinking tea has a degree of complexity, requiring utensils.
Tea is not drunk on its own but with sugar and milk or lemon, requiring the cup to be stirred. The varieties of tea (black tea and orange pekoe) communicate that many types of tea imported to Britain from colonial outposts in earlier times.
Small cakes and cookies accompany the traditional English afternoon tea. The first painting of a scone with clotted cream and jam is an iconic English accompaniment to afternoon tea. It is representative of the warmth and stability of home and community. The second painting shows traditional Austrian Linzer cookies. In the context of a British afternoon tea, Linzer cookies would be representative of sophistication and continental travel, for which the affluent English would take great pride.
In the context of the 21st C, these paintings invoke feelings of tradition and sophistication. They represent the myth associated with a formal English heritage, a time when there was a certain cultural capital in just being English. This tradition would not normally be found in modern homes; rather, it would be available in formal settings such as traditional high end hotels or restaurants that market the myths of elegance and decorum, such as that offered at the Fairmont Empress Victoria which provides “Afternoon Tea – steeped in tradition since 1908.” Katka Adams recreates this identity in her paintings – tradition, warmth, security, finesse; a time that has slipped away from modern life but can still be savoured through art and food.
Ashley, B, J. Hollows, S. Jones & B. Taylor (2004) “The National Diet,” Food and Cultural Studies, Routledge, pp.75-89
Chandler, David, Semiotics for Beginners, www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents;@4B/sem12html
Ashley, B, J Hollows, S. Jones & B. Taylor, op.cit. p. 66
Ashley, B, J. Hollows, S. Jones & B. Taylor, op.cit., p.75
Toussaint-Samat, op. cit. p537
Haden, Roger, with reference to Mary Douglas, anthropologist, in the explanation of Food and Meaning
Ashley, Bob, Joanne Hollows, Steve Jones and Ben Taylor op.cit. p.66
Afternoon tea at the Fairmont Empress Victoria www.fairmont.com/empress-victoria/dining/afternoontea/
Images taken from http://www.katkaadams.com.au/home.html