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Ornamental Exotica: Transplanting the Aesthetics of Tea Consumption

Romita Ray, Syracuse University

My paper focuses on how Chinese tea, once a botanical novelty in eighteenth-century Britain, crystallized into an ornamental paradigm within the aesthetics of a Britain culinary ritual: tea time. When the eminent botanist and first (unofficial) director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, Sir Joseph Banks, dispatched specimen collectors to China to procure exotic plants and vegetables, including tea, he was also interested in collecting another luxurious product: fine Chinese porcelain for his wife.

Taking my lead from Banks’s dual interest in botanizing tea and appreciating the material culture of tea consumption, I examine how Chinese tea produced a unique sensory experience in which taste, smell, touch, and visual pleasure were entangled with one another while catering to a distinctly British sensibility. This experience, I demonstrate, evolved across several aesthetic domains: a botanical treatise, the tea table laden with delicate porcelain utensils, the exquisite painted surface of a teapot, a conversation piece, a still-life, and a botanical garden. These diverse but related visual realms would play key roles in reinventing Chinese tea as a British drink. Equally importantly, they were mediated through different registers of taste deeply embedded in readings of British character and sensibility.

Such readings, in turn, would have a profound impact on transplanting Chinese tea in India. In 1786, Colonel Robert Kyd created a botanical garden in Calcutta with the strategic goal to experiment with growing Chinese tea in India. If successful, the plan would relieve the East India Company of dependence on the China Trade. It would also usher in a distinctly “British” visual culture of tea drinking in a colonial landscape. Thus, I look at how the aesthetics of tea consumption, inspired by a Chinese import, were transplanted in Britain’s emergent tea-growing enclave, India.

Romita Ray is an associate professor of art history in the department of art and music histories at Syracuse University. She specializes in the art and architecture of the British Empire in India, and has recently published her first book, Under the Banyan Tree: Relocating the Picturesque in British India (Yale, 2013). She has published several articles and book chapters on a wide array of topics ranging from the orientalizing of Mata Hari in early twentieth-century photographs to Johann Zoffany’s affinity for the banyan tree in eighteenth-century India. She is currently working on her second book manuscript on the aesthetics of tea cultivation and consumption in colonial and post-colonial India.

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