Fowler Tells Story of Tea Through Art from Asia, Europe, US

Fowler Tells Story of Tea Through Art from Asia, Europe, US

Italian teapot (circa 1840)

'Steeped in History: The Art of Tea' runs from Aug. 16 through Nov. 19. In conjunction with the exhibition, the UCLA Asia Institute this fall will sponsor a series of lectures and a professional development program for K-12 teachers.

By Stacey Ravel Abarbanel for the UCLA Newsroom

HOT OR ICED, bagged or loose, black or green — enjoying a cup of tea, whatever form it takes, is an act performed at least 3 billion times a day the world over. Indeed, more people drink tea than any other beverage except water.

"Steeped in History: The Art of Tea," on display at the Fowler Museum at UCLA from Aug. 16 through Nov. 29, is a wide-ranging exhibition that brings together centuries of art from three continents to delve into the history and culture of tea.

From Asia to the West, tea has played a variety of profound roles on the world scene — as an ancient health remedy, an element of cultural practice and a source of spiritual insight. Historically, tea was also a catalyst for international conflicts and horrific labor conditions in various countries.

Throughout its history, tea has been a prevalent theme in the visual arts — tea-related scenes embellish ceramics and textiles and form the subject of paintings and drawings, and all manner of vessels have been fashioned for its preparation and presentation.

"Steeped in History" brings together rare Chinese ceramics and paintings, 18th- and 19th-century Japanese ceramics and prints, English and colonial American paintings, vintage photographs, historical documents, tea-serving paraphernalia and furniture from many countries, and much more to tell the fascinating history of tea.

China, Cradle of Tea Culture

After a brief introduction to tea varieties, cultivation and production, the exhibition considers tea's mythic origins in the hills of southern China. Tea was already in use as a medicinal plant during the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 B.C.). By the time the "Chajing," the first book on tea, was written in 780 B.C., tea was widely cultivated in southwestern China and had been elevated to an "elixir of immortality" in Daoism, used as imperial tribute, celebrated in poetry, enjoyed by literati, transported on camelback to the Central Asian steppes and sold on street corners.

Over the centuries, Chinese artisans created the most inventive and infinitely varied kinds of tea, and the art and material culture of tea flourished. This portion of the exhibition includes a lavishly painted portrait of Shen Nong, the legendary inventor of tea; exquisite porcelain tea bowls dating from the eighth to the 13th centuries; scrolls and watercolors illustrating Chinese tea trade and culture; and stereocard photographic prints depicting tea-making in Peking during the late 19th and early 20th centuries

Tea in Japan

The exhibition also explores tea's enormous significance in Japan, where it was first introduced during the early Heian period (794-1185) by monks who traveled to China to study Zen Buddhism. Tea was consumed in monasteries and in some aristocratic circles, but it was not until the late 12th century that its role in Japanese arts and culture became more prominent, after a Buddhist priest brought back to Japan the powdered tea (known as matcha) then popular in China.

Tea drinking spread among the military and aristocracy, and interactions between the warrior elite and Zen priests produced one of the early forms of the Japanese tea ceremony, or chanoyu. By the second half of the Edo period (1615–1868), tea had become so central to Japanese culture that everyday articles and accessories, such the netsuke, decorative Japanese belt toggles hung from the sashes of the kimono, were frequently decorated with tea-related motifs. The opening of Japan to the West in the 1850s brought new topics and themes to tea-related arts, as well as to the development of tea wares produced for Western markets.

Stoneware tea caddies, tea bowls, scrolls and other tea-related objects created from the 10th to the 20th century attest to the long history and important place of tea in Japanese culture. A magnificent bed cover decorated with images of tea utensils and other auspicious items illustrates how tea culture permeated even the most personal aspects of Japanese life.

Tea Craze in the West

Tea was not readily accepted when it first arrived in Europe in the early 17th century, but it caught on quickly the Netherlands, where the import arrived along with Chinese and Japanese porcelain vessels for its preparation and serving. By the mid-17th century, the European upper classes had embraced tea, along with coffee and chocolate, and as it gradually became more affordable, its consumption spread to the general population.

As the regimen of tea was popularized and perfected, artists and marketers strove to create the perfect tea accoutrements, which became status symbols. Furniture — like the exhibition's elegant late 17th-century French tripod table featuring a tea-drinking scene — was specially designed for afternoon tea, and the European porcelain industry took off after Europeans learned the long-held Chinese secret of porcelain making. The exhibition features many early English teacups, sets and caddies, as well as works on paper and paintings, that attest to the status of tea in Europe.

The first tea to reach America was introduced by the Dutch, and the habit of tea drinking spread quickly in the colonies. To control the profits of tea trade, the British Parliament passed legislation requiring the colonies to import tea solely from Britain, which led to colonists buying cheaper smuggled tea. This, accompanied by a number of tax acts that collected revenues for the Crown and penalized the consumption of smuggled tea, led to tea becoming forever associated with American Revolutionary actions, of which the Boston Tea Party is the best known.

Among the exhibition highlights are several notable early American oil paintings showing the role of tea in colonial life, including works lent by the National Gallery of Art, the Maryland State Archive and the Chicago Historical Society. Other pieces on view, including a silver sugar urn from the Fowler collection by Boston patriot and silversmith Paul Revere, recall the role of tea in Revolutionary protests. An array of elaborate tea vessels reveals the continuing popularity of the beverage in American culture today.

Tea and Empire

Britain's ever-increasing appetite for tea brought enormous profit to the British Crown and the East India Company. "Steeped in History" explores tea as a global commodity at the height of the British Empire, the development of large-scale tea plantations in northern India and the link between tea and the Indian opium trade. Historical photographs show tea parties in Calcutta and tea production in Darjeeling, while a series of engravings depicts the stages involved in processing opium.

Several works also reveal ongoing dialogues about tea in relation to politics, agriculture, health and society today. Advertisements, like one from England (circa 1939) proclaiming "Tea Revives You," show 20th-century notions of tea use, while other works evoke contemporary concerns of the fair-trade movement.

Additional Information

"Steeped in History: The Art of Tea" is guest curated by Beatrice Hohenegger, author of "Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea From East to West" (St. Martin's Press, 2007), who also edited the multi-authored volume "Steeped in History: The Art of Tea" (2009), published by the Fowler Museum in conjunction with this exhibition and distributed by the University of Washington Press.
Major support for "Steeped in History" is provided by the Henry Luce Foundation and the Ahmanson Foundation. Additional support is generously provided by the Edna and Yu-Shan Han Charitable Foundation and Numi Tea.
The accompanying programs are made possible through the Yvonne Lenart Public Programs Fund, the UCLA Asia Institute, and Manus, the support group for the Fowler Museum. Media sponsorship is provided by Edible Los Angeles. For information on the public lecture series, please visit the Asia Institute's website.

The Fowler Museum at UCLA is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. and Thursdays from noon to 8 p.m.; it is closed Monday and Tuesday. The museum, part of the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture (UCLA Arts), is located in the north part of the UCLA campus. Admission is free. Parking is available for a maximum of $9 in Lot 4. For more information, the public may call 310-825-4361 or visit

Published: Tuesday, June 09, 2009