For the first time in four years, I planned a trip to Newcastle purely for personal reasons. My aunt, Wilma “Empress Wu” Simmons, had invited me to speak at her latest art exhibition opening, Leaves of Distinction, which was textile art about tea, so I took some annual leave and made a long weekend of it.
I flew on the day of the exhibition and started off thematically by having a cup of mint and lavender tissane at the Velocity Lounge. This teapot was on display but it was just there to tease and I wasn’t allowed to brew in it.
We bought lunch at Market Town on the way home from the airport, and I wouldn’t have otherwise mentioned it except that the sushi rice was purple. In an unbelieveble turn of events, I don’t actually have a photo of my lunch for once *audience gasps* so I can’t share it with you. But it was the colour of the outside of an eggplant. I kid you not.
I spent the afternoon tweaking my speech and then it was time to head to the gallery. Timeless Textiles’s new address is the old police station and lockup. Leaves of Distinction was the first exhibition to occupy this new (old) space.
I met up with my cousin who was there to provide moral support to both me and her mother.
I had a meander through the exhibition before everyone arrived and soaked it in.
I didn’t think I could do a better job at explaining the artwork than the actual artist could so I have used her words to caption my photos.
I regretted not getting a better photo of the last set of work. Jane See and Su See where my great-great grandmothers.
My aunt provides a great explanation of the content and artistic processes used in the exhibition in this short film, so you don’t just have to rely on my interpretation.
Soon, the who’s who of textiles in Newcastle were starting to arrive and it was time to open the evening. I was introduced by Anne, the owner of Timeless Textiles, with a bio that I wrote myself:
Yvette Griggs is the niece and goddaughter of this exhibition’s creator and, sharing her aunt’s artistic passion, creates digital artworks under the name “de la souris d’Yvette” (from the mouse of Yvette).
Not yet daring enough to quit her day job, Yvette also has an honours degree in Computer Systems Engineering and works as a Railway Signalling Engineer, warming up for speaking at tonight’s event by recently presenting a technical paper at the Thales Axle Counter User Group Seminar in Frankfurt.
Yvette’s favourite teas are French Earl Grey and Jasmine Pearls, and she is the creator of the widely unknown cocktail, the South Brisbane Iced Tea.
My mother is Wilma’s little sister. Two birthday’s ago, my mother gave Wilma a book called “Distinguished Leaves – Poems for tea-lovers”. And this book inspired her to see the humble cup of tea as a topic that should be creatively explored through textiles and art dolls.
My mother, as the giver of the book that started it all, and an avid tea drinker herself, was invited to address you tonight but unfortunately she’s in Dublin at the moment attending a Mercy pilgrimage, so I’m afraid, you’re stuck with Plan B. (You can read about her travels here).
Elizabeth Darcy Jones is the author of Distinguished Leaves.
I had initially though that Elizabeth Darcy Jones was the nome du plume of a keen Jane Austen fan but this is actually her real name, and she is a real person – a close personal friend of Stephen Fry no less, which just adds more weight to her credibility.
Her book contains 40 delightful poems exploring the history and characters of tea, coining the portmanteau “poetea” in her own introduction.
Lady EDJ, as she refers to herself in her twitter handle, may be the ‘House Poet’ for Beatons Tearooms and Bookshop in Tisbury, but she is certainly not the first to express her tea obsession in verse.
Wei Yingwu, an 8th century Tang Dynasty poet composed “The Joy of Growing Tea in my Garden” describing tea as a pure spiritual liquid “for drinking it expunges dust and woe”.
14th century Japanese luminary, Gidoo Shuushin, held a similar reverence for tea, reflecting in verse,
“ I received a small brick of tea
And sipping it, felt cool; I can do with the wind as I will.
Why should I need paradise?
My whole body is floating amid the white clouds.”
Asia is considered the birth place of tea, and classically oriental tea is quite different to the black english breakfast that most of us brew as a standard.
When Dutch merchants attempted to export chinese tea all the way back to the west, in the lusious green state that it was sold in china, they found that it didn’t survive the damp conditions and long journey.
Chinese tea makers had to experiment with allowing the tea to blacken before drying, which produces the “barbarian” tea that was to become popular all over europe by the mid 1600s.
But the differences in tea processing style haven’t meant that europeans favour tea any less than their Asian bretheren.
Our favourite Anglophone authors have penned odes to tea as well.
Rudyard Kipling, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Edward Lear, just to drop a few names.
In fact Rudyard Kipling’s cuppa was so dear to him that his poem recounting an incident of a kettle cracking ends with the line “The bottom is out of the Universe!”
Tea is not limited to merely being the subject of poetry – the drinking of this drink can be a muse in itself.
The Song Dynasty has been described as the romantic period of tea drinking.
The social elite of this time were preoccupied with the seeking of pleasure and luxury – qualities strongly associated with a refined beverage such as tea.
During this period, many tea houses were established all over china to allow for public tea drinking and socialising.
Song tea houses were not just the places to be seen, but also provided a venue for the writing and reciting of poetry.
And tea’s ability to hydrate the creative juices of humanity is not just confined to literature.
For centuries, artisans have crafted beautiful vessels – cups, saucers, pots, creamers, jugs, bowls – to allow tea to be enjoyed to its full potential by all of the senses.
Artistic Yixing clay teapots, first crafted in the Song dynasty, are sculpted with nature-inspired adornments and are assigned particular colours depending on the type of tea they will be used for brewing.
This style of teapot is still sold today and can be worth more than $3000.
As tea’s rapture spread across the globe, different styles of decorative embellishment on tea drinking implements became synomous with the tea drinking experience.
Although not technically limited to decorating teapots, my favourite crockery pattern, without a doubt, is Willowware.
My grandmother has an enviable willowware collection
and as a tween, I was taught to identify the blue and white hallmarks – the willow tree, the bridge, the enchanted lovers turned into birds – all knowledge imparted with an extra strong bushels with soy milk and 2 lumps – my grandmother’s standard brew.
Not only are works created to facilitate the consumption of tea, but the sacred acts of preparing and drinking tea are depicted in visual art.
Spring Morning in the Han Palace, a famous scroll painting by 16th century Ming Dynasty artist, Qiu Ying, shows ladies of the court engaging in fine literari preoccupations such as playing musical instruments, picking flowers, chasing butterflies, playing chess, dancing, gossiping, bribing artists to paint their portraits less realistically, and, most importantly brewing tea.
Although not depicted as often as semi-nude biblical characters, tea drinkers and tea drinking implements are reasonably prevalent in European paintings from the 17th century onwards, capturing the habits of the time.
Sharing a penchant for willoware with my grandmother, English genre and sometimes pre-raphealite artist George Dunlop Leslie features a willoware teaset in his 1894 painting, simply entitled “Tea”.
A domestic servant with a strawberry shortcake style mop cab and an english rose complexion, pours tea for the viewer, giving us a glimpse of the simple joys of English life at the time.
The theme of Leslie’s works at this stage was to highlight the sunny side of english domestic life and its not surprising that the drinking of tea features not only in this piece but in others in his collection.
In Leaves of Distinction, you will see that Wilma has crafted a unique blend of tea and art, which echoes a long tradition of humanity’s love affair with tea.
But why do we have such a strong and long lasting affinity with this beverage?
All tea comes from the same species of plant, Camellia sinensis.
But, you may wonder, as I did upon reading this fact, how can this be, teas are so different, so individual, so varied, how can they possibly be from the same species?
Different teas are picked at different times of the year, from different parts of the plant and undergo different processing and preparation.
Varieties of tea are different ages, are grown in different places, are nurtured in different ways, look different, and act in different ways when they get in hot water.
Does this remind you of another species?
Perhaps humans are so universally enamored with our tea because we see similar characteristics, unique and bespoke like our own, like those Wilma has brought to life in this exhibition.
There are so many teas to encounter, and even with our very individual tastes, perhaps there is a perfect tea for us all – a soul tea if you will.
Whether you are the sort of barbarian (like me) who would sacrilegiously spoil a tea with milk and biscuit crumbs or are the type of tea aficionado who measures water temperature to decimal degrees to ensure optimal behaviour of your unfurling leaves, I hope you enjoy Leaves of Distinction tonight and may the teas be ever in your flavour.