By Elisabeth Grass on April 23, 2019 in Radical Objects
The study of material culture has led to some superb work on radical ceramics from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Researchers have shown that quotidian items were often decorated in support of radical movements, carrying calls for political and social change. The subversive potential of these objects was amplified by their ubiquity; messages in support of the abolition of slavery or social reform were juxtaposed with the ordinariness of the items on which they appeared.
But what about ceramics with no overt agenda? At first glance, this tea bowl and saucer appear to be far from radical; they certainly bear no abolitionist motto or cap of liberty. They are the kinds of objects that many of us have seen in museums and historic houses, and which often seem inaccessible. Usually presented solely as fine and luxury goods, they are seldom interpreted with reference to means of production, power, or imperialism. Yet as fashionable commodities they represent some of the many ways in which empire appeared, and was normalised, in British homes.
The commodification of the bitter trinity of chocolate, coffee and tea introduced new rituals of consumption to Britain, which soon became bound up with projected notions of civility and politeness. These rituals not only increased demand for the goods themselves—and sugar to sweeten them—but were also accompanied by a host of objects for their preparation and presentation.
A project in Oxford is seeking to use these objects as a basis for discussions of Britain’s imperial agenda. A Nice Cup of Tea has partnered with the Ashmolean Museum to explore the imperial context of its ceramics in a community co-curated exhibition. Opening in May 2019, the exhibition will take place in the European Ceramics Gallery alongside the Marshall Collection, one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of early coloured Worcester porcelain. Working with artists Lois Muddiman and Enam Gbewonyo, and local community group BK LUWO, the project recontextualises these artefacts by placing them alongside narratives about the historical acquisition of tea and sugar, and a striking installation of exploding tea-cups.
A Nice Cup of Tea is challenging school students, families, and museum visitors to think about empire by reconsidering the national obsession with tea drinking. It juxtaposes the civilised accoutrements of the tea table with histories of the human trafficking and mass-enslavement that underpinned the sugar industry, and the corruption and violence which secured access to tea. Visitors are encouraged to consider the dialectic between violence perpetrated at the geographical fringes of the British Empire, and the projection of civility and gentility which arose around taking tea ‘at home’.
The idea came from looking at the Ashmolean Museum’s collections of eighteenth-century porcelain and wondering: what could be discovered from putting these objects into their wider global and social context?
The Nice Cup of Tea project was developed by Myfanwy Lloyd and Angeli Vaid of Oxford Arts Consultants with research carried out by Oxford University PhD students Mimi Goodall and Elisabeth Grass. The project has been working closely with partners across Oxford, including the Oxford Windrush Planning Group, chaired by Junie James, Director of the African Caribbean Kultural Heritage Initiative. The group brings together community organisations, Oxford City Council, Museum of Oxford, the University Museums, the Oxford University History Faculty and independent activists.
Elisabeth Grass is a doctoral candidate in the History Faculty at Oxford University, studying as part of a Collaborative Doctoral Award with the National Trust. She is researching West Indian slave owners in Britain in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the processes by which they established themselves as landed gentlemen. A rare book cataloguer by profession, she is particularly interested in the ways in which collecting and connoisseurship were used to elide negative associations with empire and transatlantic slavery.