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  • Writer's pictureJ.-G. Heurteloup

A Tea Table in 1793

Updated: Oct 3, 2021

By Christian Robardey-Tanner

The video « Of Coffee », based on Grimod de la Reynière's Almanach des Gourmands and describing the preparation of coffee in 1805 was due to a specific circumstance, namely the purchase by Mr Heurteloup of an 'A la Belloy' coffee machine. Mr Heurteloup had commissioned a silversmith from Basle to remodel a missing piece, the water distributor, after a print published in the famous Journal des Luxus und der Moden, which led to a remarkable work of reconstitution. In the meantime, the intense correspondence with his dear friend Sabine Schierhoff spawned the idea of replacing this object of daily life in its historical background.

Well, no sooner had the workshop of Les Soirées Amusantes (LSA) released the video than the Muse Sabine, after taking an interest in the French ceremonial of coffee, spured Heurteloup to devote himself to the ritual of tea that, at the time called ''Classical Weimar'', had started to spread out among the circles of the upper class. Therefore, she unsurprisingly initiated her Swiss friend to various German sources widely unknown in the public at the time, such as:

- Bertuch's Journal des Luxus und der Moden of August 1788

- Bertuch's Journal des Luxus und der Moden of July 1793

- Le Goullon's Der elegante Theetisch oder die Kunst einen glänzenden Zirkel auf eine geschmackvolle und anständige Art ohne grossen Aufwand zu bewirthen of 1829

- Sophie von La Roche's Tagebuch einer Reise durch die Schweiz of 1787

- Das Journal für Fabrik, Manufaktur und Handlung. Zweyter Band. January to June of 1792.

After making his way through the Gothic fonts of these sources, wielding his pencils, Heureloup wanted to put his acquired knowledge into practice. With the purpose of making a new video, he had to clarify the following issues:

- What utensils do you need to recreate a tea table?

- How do you consider the different steps of the preparation and service of tea?

- Which year seems most appropriate for the reconstitution of a tea table?

- Where could the video clip be shot to feature a company gathered for tea?

First of all, Heurteloup's imagination was stimulated by the example of ''the Bernese life'' by the German writer Sophie de La Roche[1]. In her travel writing published in 1787, the author mentions a scene she witnessed in Bern, where a patrician lady was preparing tea:

"The lady of the house busying herself around the tea table is quite a pleasant spectacle to see, insomuch as it shows herself to her best advantage, more particularly when it happens she is a dexterous and amiable person. The numerous cups, the sugar bowls, the small decanters of capillaire syrup, the two types of tea caddies and of tea pots, the lovely inlaid piece of furniture with its inside covered in metal and that is aimed at receiving the ember and the kettle that stay next to her, confirm her role of sovereign of the house and attentive hostess. She lavishes attention on all her guests, asks them questions and serves them while making thousands of pleasant gestures with her head, her hands and her fingers. If you want to form a precise opinion on this society, you have to imagine the scene under an arcade. From three sides, this place offers a view upon the gardens in which many guests of this illustrious society walk. They drink their cup of tea under a tree, holding rolls in their hands, quite naturally enjoying in peace both flowers and this afternoon time before taking their place around gaming tables."[2]

Those that have seen the private mansions of Bern, situated near the cathedral upon the River Aar, will easily imagine the aforementioned guests loitering between house and gardens. So, the following items will be selected among the detailed inventory of the tea table made by the author La Roche in 1787:

- Tea cups

- Various sugar bowls

- Small decanters with capillaire syrup[3]

- Two tea caddies

- Two tea pots

- The portable stove made of inlaid wood with its inside covered in metal, heated by ember to boil the water for the tea

- The kettle

It goes without saying that for a reconstitution work centered upon tea-related practices, one has to take into consideration the Journal des Luxus und der Moden, published by Bertuch. Indeed, in its August 1788 issue, the reader can find the exhaustive list of tea utensils then in fashion.[4]

You can notice that the tea urns gets a particularly developed description:


"Source 1 is the perfect illustration of an English tea machine made of patinated copper that presents solid or plated silver ornaments. Source 6 shows the tap it is equipped with and that, for the sake of accuracy, we reproduce separately. The English use it to keep the water boiling, by means of a hot iron bar. Yet, this practice has proven to be somehow troublesome since it is often little efficient."[5]

Unlike the description drawn by Sophie de La Roche of tea utensils in 1787, three other components are added, namely:

- the milk jug

- the tea machine

- the crystal small bottle as a different form of the tea caddy mentioned by La Roche.

The tea machine, also named 'tea urn', is also the object of a commercialisation in the Journal für Fabrik, Manufaktur und Handlung of 1792. However, publishers insist on a third way to prepare the hot water required for tea:[6]

"Among English tea machines, it is above all a recent invention, of easy use, chosen by those that are not ready to acquire a vase-shaped tea urn often richly ornate. Instead, they have resort to English kettles, warmed up on an alcool burner."[7]

Nonetheless, this element is far from closing the tea inventory. In July 1793, Bertuch recommends in his journal a piece of furniture, practical for the use of tea urns that have been recently introduced in Germany:

Source: Nowadays, this type of tea urn stand can still be purchased, especially from British sellers. However, it seems to have been rare in France.

"Usually, we put the hot tea machine directly onto the tea table. Thereby, we do not only run the risk of damaging its veneer but we also deprive ourselves of the room we need to set cups and tea utensils. Otherwise, the latter often end down on the floor. The English on the other hand use tea urn stands they place with the tea machine next to the tea table or at any other convenient spot. These are little round or square tables you can see on print 21, 1-2. Made of mahogany, they offer a lacquered top with a small drawer (See #7) on which you can put the kettle any time you want to fill it with hot water (See plans 3-4). Beneath the top of the stand, you can find a second very light shelf (See #6) between the legs on which they usually put the richly ornate tea box (see fig. 5)."[8]

The reader will find some precisions about the tea table in Le Goullon's text:

"Tea tables are commonly made of mahogany equipped with a painted and varnished toleware tea tray. The serving plates are made of the same material which, in terms of hygiene, makes them even preferable to silver."[9]

Contemporary iconography shows that the painted toleware tray considered by Le Goullon as an integral part of the tea table can easily be replaced by a « tea tray ».[10] Anyway, the tea inventory will once again be completed by the reading of Le Goullon's Der elegante Theetisch:

"After the disappearance of the little Japanese tea set, tea spoons have taken longer and more important forms. They are often made of vermeil, most of the time of silver, just like the tea strainer. ''[11]

Besides, Le Goullon refers to 'plates and dishes serving to present the accompaniments of tea'[12], as well as bowls (or basins) used to rinse tea cups.[13]

Jean-Étienne Liotard, "Tea Set", 1781-1783. Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, Source: On the painted toleware tray, the traditional Japanese tea set with its small bowls, basin, tea pot, milk jug, tea caddy, sugar bowl, serving plate, tea spoons and sugar tongs.

Now, if you study the pictures relating to 18th century tea rituals, it looks like the list of utensils is always incomplete. Sugar tongs are for instance often missing in paintings of that time. Moreover, the English antiques market proves the existence of a certain type of spoon, namely the 'tea caddy spoon' whose unique function consists in transferring the tea from the box to the pot.

Based on research of the vast documentation of 18th century literature and paintings, we can establish the following list:

- cups

- sugar bowl(s)

- small decanters containing capillaire syrup or rum

- tea boxes or caddies[14]

- one or two tea pots[15]

- a kettle warmed up on a portable stove with ember or by the means of an alcool burner, or a tea urn

- a milk jug

- a bowl (or basin) to rinse the cups

- tea spoons

- a tea caddy spoon

- plates and dishes serving to present the accompaniments of tea

- a tea strainer

- a tea stray

- a tea table

- a tea urn stand

Facing the quantity of the required utensils, Heurteloup felt a little dizzy at first. However, considering the imminence of his 40th birthday party, he counted on the generosity of his faithful friend Claude-Nicolas that would most likely treat him with little presents. A China collector, he first focused on cups: Could he use for the video those he already was the happy owner of? Which forms prevailed in the late 1700s? To his great displeasure, the reputed works remained silent on the matter, which exasperated him since the iconography seemed clear unanimous: Tea was mainly served in bowls. Nevertheless, Bertuch's explanations in his July 1793 issue do not seem to be in agreement with this fact:

"The style of the day commands to show a diversity of cups on a tea table. Those can have more or less the shape of a 'litre cup'. Yet, each cup has to show different decoration and ornaments so that tea drinkers can easily identify their own cup so as to avoid any confusion with their neighbour's."[16]

Le Goullon also urges to use tea cups showing painted decorations or individual ornaments. However, in 1829, he is far away from recommending the 'litre cup' shaped tea cup for the consumption of tea:

''Tea cups are not allowed anymore to appear under their primitive shape either; they nowadays resemble offering bowls. In this way, they are decorated with the most exquisite subjects and feature gods and heroes of the Greek mythology or hieroglyphs. Thereby, they do not only offer balsamic tea but also provide the conversation with matter.''[17]

Since he was not rolling in gold, Heurteloup thought no one should be expected to do the impossible to meet so many requirements regarding tea cups. But one day, he saw through the window of an antiques shop in Biel nine tea bowls with their saucers and he could not help but stepped into the boutique to broker a deal with the merchant. Admittedly, they do not present hieroglyphs or mythological silhouettes of Ancient Greece in the manner of Wedgewood's jasperware. On the other hand, he had found a set in perfect condition whose form absolutely matched the one he had identified in 18th century pictures.[18] He already owned the sugar bowl, the spoons, the milk jug, the tray and the tea caddy, as well as the basin. He could also boast of being the happy owner of a 'table bouillotte' that could very well be used for tea table. But it was quite the opposite regarding the tea urn, and the English market would provide him with one dating even back to the 1790s. Well, to his great displeasure, the silver plating was much frayed, the tap was blocked and leaked and the putrid smell that came from the inside was intolerable to him. This of course was a godsend for the Basel silversmith who got entrusted with the task of plunging the good old lady into a silver bath of youth to help her recover her original beauty.

The English silver-plated tea urn dating back to the 1790s, restored by the Basel silversmith. Copyright: Fabrice Robardey

Soon after, an English tea pot would come to keep company.

The 1797 English tea pot and Claude-Nicolas's kettle. In the foreground, the bowl (or basin) and Paris China bowls, as well as the 1790s English tea caddy. Copyright: Fabrice Robardey

On the day of his 40th birthday, Heurteloup received from his faithful Claude-Nicolas a pair of English sugar tongs as well as the ardently desired tea caddy spoon.

The 1790s tea caddy spoon. Copyright: Fabrice Robardey

But Monsieur de Feule did not call it quits, since he resolved to acquire a silver kettle on its alcohol burner. Heurteloup was also fortunate to own a little set of small flasks. So, the video project could be brought to fruition despite the strange regrets of Heurteloup who was still thinking about the tea urn stand and more acutely the portable stove mentioned by Sophie de La Roche he had to scrap.

The English sugar tongs date back to the second half of the 18th century. Copyright: Fabrice Robardey

The time had eventually come to establish the definitive program of the tea preparation. How were the guests supposed to gather around the tea table? A little story was necessary for the scenario. It was found in a polemical article against tea consumption, published in August 1788 in the Journal des Luxus und der Moden in which an anonymous German doctor is inveighing against the supposedly harmful effects of tea.[19] This would trigger the writing of the script. This diatribe, though highly pruned definitely had to figure in the video about tea. For behind the doctor's criticism lays before anything else a social criticism targeting a general phenomenon by which Europe was gripped at the time: Anglomania. In its wake, the consumption of coffee dropped drastically.[20] That was a nice way in ! Especially since in his speech against bad dancers, Heurteloup had already proven his worth in the rôle of Grumpy Grampa! To his greatest surprise he, the francophile detractor of Anglomania, will get invited by his friend Mrs. Reeves. This invitation will create a few surprises that will somehow shake his convictions and values inherent to the good old Germany. But that was not all. At the end of the video, an English Lady, Mrs. Smyth, will give him a very hard time. This is the story you can be expecting to watch. In the meantime, the spectator's eye will stick to the character of the lady of the house with her 'thousands of pleasant gestures' admired by Sophie de La Roche. She will show him how tea is supposed to be prepared and served by the book, still according to Le Goullon.

For a change, Heurteloup feels too lazy to faithfully bring here all the various steps of this ritual and allows himself to link the reader back to Le Goullon's work and recommends to watch Les Soirées Amusantes' future video. For the reader needs to keep some curiosity to still want to watch it. Yet, he would like to broach a last subject, which is tea itself! So, still according to Le Goullon, only four varieties of tea can be used for an elitist society, namely Haysan, Schin, Soulong and Pecco. But since there will be very few guests in our video, the lady will please her friends with Pecco only.

Well, what year could work for the reconstitution of tea ritual? Some years ago, Mrs. Reeves had introduced him to a painting by Swiss artist Reinhard. This picture shows a family having tea. Fascinated, Heurteloup was gazing at the lady of the house again and again, with her monumental bonnet, sitting next to the portable stove and holding the kettle ready to prepare tea. This is how he had pictured the patrician lady in Bern described by Sophie de La Roche in her travel writing. Yet, despite the family members' out-of-fashion costumes, the painting dates from 1796. Knowing that his friend Alessandra would be more easily convinced by a 1790s reconstitution, and that in 1793 Bertuch had dedicated a new edition of his Journal to tea, it is this year he chose for his project.

The Bernese family Dupan having tea, by Josef Reinhard, 1796, Historisches Museum Bern. Copyright: Alessandra Reeves. Their Japanese tea set is totally out of date for that time. Left, the portable stove with embers as described by Sophie de La Roche and that keeps the kettle hot.

Eventually, time had come to find a place for the filming. The Musée de la Folie Marco in the little town of Barr (in Alsace) agreed to welcome Les Soirées Amusantes and put the museum at our disposal. On the first floor of this former country house, a Louis XV salon (drawing room) with its original furniture would perfectly work for an old-fashioned salon of Bernese conservative patricians. Just a few days before the filming and notwithstanding unexpected obstacles, some little and big surprises occurred. A miracle took place thanks to the Muse of Weimar, Sabine Schierhoff, who had been sponsoring this whole filming adventure: she managed to unearth for Les Soirées Amusantes the ember portable stove Heurteloup had already in his heart of hearts forgotten about. The day before the shooting, the 230 year-old piece of furniture arrived from Germany to get its original function back. There is no need to mention that Jean-Gatien was over the moon, although he still could not fully take the measure of this godsend. Another surprise occurred when Mrs. Marianne Meyer of Aarau managed to put on one of his 'robes en chemise' he had made two years earlier for a musician. What is more, the pretty Argovian lady seemed to enjoy wearing Mrs. Dupan's oversized bonnet he had sewn the day before for the occasion.

Left, Mrs. Marianne Meyer in her 'robe en chemise' wearing Mrs. Dupan's oversized bonnet. In the middle, Mrs. Smyth, following the English fashion and, right, Mrs. Reeves, the lady of the house, in her 'robe à la Turque' preparing tea. The Musée de la Folie Marco does not own any tea urn stand in their collection but lots of 'tables bouillotte' pertaining to the French 'art de vivre', and that turn out to be very practical for the preparation of tea. The gaming table in the middle is somewhat reminiscent of the Dupans old-fashioned Louis XV tea table. Copyright: Fabrice Robardey

Among the unexpected obstacles, it should be mentioned the limited time that was allotted to unpack and put in place all the elements required for the filming, to rehearse in situ and to pack up again. Besides, Mrs. Reeves and Mrs. Meyer were diminished due to a severe flu, the former with temperature and the latter suffering from painful coughing. Adding boiling water to the 30°C did not bring coolness to the stage.

The lady of the house, Mrs. Reeves, finally getting some rest after the ritual of tea in the company of her two friends and of her guest Mr. Heurteloup who, slightly late, joined her inner circle. Copyright: Fabrice Robardey

Translation: Fabrice Robardey

Primary sources:

BERTUCH, Friedrich Justin: Journal des Luxus und der Moden, Weimar, August 1788.

BERTUCH, Friedrich Justin: Journal des Luxus und der Moden, Weimar, October 1788.

BERTUCH, Friedrich Justin: Journal des Luxus und der Moden, Weimar, July 1793.

LE GOULLON, François: Der elegante Theetisch oder die Kunst einen glänzenden Zirkel auf eine geschmackvolle und anständige Art ohne grossen Aufwand zu bewirthen, Weimar, Wilhelm Hoffmann, 1829.

LA ROCHE, Sophie, Tagebuch einer Reise durch die Schweiz, Altenburg, Richtersche Buchhandlung, 1787.

Journal für Fabrik, Manufaktur und Handlung. Zweyter Band. Januar bis Juni, Leipzig, Voss und Leo, 1792.

Secondary sources:

ENNÈS, Pierre et al.: Histoire de la table, Paris, Flammarion, 1994.

HERDA-MOUSSEAUX, Rose-Marie (et al): Thé, café ou chocolat? Les boissons exotiques à Paris au XVIIIe siècles, Paris, Musée Cognac-Jay, 2015.

PLINVAL DE GUILLEBON, Régine de: Faïence et porcelaine de Paris XVIIIe – XIXe siècles, Paris, éditions Faton, 1995.

[1] LA ROCHE, Sophie, Tagebuch einer Reise durch die Schweiz, Altenburg, Richtersche Buchhandlung, 1787, p. 365.

[2] Idem, p. 366

[3] In Munich's 18 January 1786 Journal one can find an explanation on the nature of this syrup: ''Can be bought from Mr Niklas Reitter, confectioner, or from other quality confectioneries, made after verified and seasoned recipes, useful against cough and inflamed bronchi. It is sold 36 crowns the flask.'' Our reading has not permitted to confirm whether this kind of syrup was systematically served with tea in these years. LSA thank Sabine Schierhoff for all her research on this detail as well as the rest of her contributions.

[4] BERTUCH, Friedrich Justin: Journal des Luxus und der Moden, Weimar, August 1788, p. 340.

[5] BERTUCH, Friedrich Justin: Journal des Luxus und der Moden, Weimar, August 1788, p. 341.

[6] The watercolour ''The marquess of Montesson, the marquess of Crest and the countess of Damas having tea in a garden'', by Louis Carrogis aka Carmontelle (1773) shows that this type of kettle was already in use in France long before the 1790s. See HERDA-MOUSSEAUX, Rose-Marie: Thé, Café ou chocolat? Les boissons exotiques à Paris au XVIIIe siècle, Paris, Musée Cognaq-Jay, p. 6.

[7] Journal für Fabrik, Manufaktur und Handlung. Second volume. January to June, Leipzig, Voss und Leo, 1792, VII. Anzeige neuer Handlungsartikel, p. 283, Vgl. LE GOULLON, François: Der elegante Theetisch oder die Kunst einen glänzenden Zirkel auf eine geschmackvolle und anständige Art ohne grossen Aufwand zu bewirthen, Weimar, Wilhelm Hoffmann, 1829, p. 15.

[8] BERTUCH, Friedrich Justin: Journal des Luxus und der Moden, Weimar, July 1793, p. 407. Vgl. LE GOULLON, François: Der elegante Theetisch oder die Kunst einen glänzenden Zirkel auf eine geschmackvolle und anständige Art ohne grossen Aufwand zu bewirthen, Weimar, Wilhelm Hoffmann, 1829, p. 16.

[9] LE GOULLON, François: Der elegante Theetisch oder die Kunst einen glänzenden Zirkel auf eine geschmackvolle und anständige Art ohne grossen Aufwand zu bewirthen, Weimar, Wilhelm Hoffmann, 1829, p. 14

[10] Ibidem. The reading of Le Goullon seems to confirm this alternative practice.

[11] Idem, p. 17.

[12] Ibidem

[13] Idem, p. 15.

[14] Napoleon's tea and punch sets also contain a crystal small bottle, see ENNÈS, Pierre et al.: Histoire de la table, Paris, Flammarion, 1994, p. 235.

[15] Napoleon's set also consists of two tea pots, but only one coffee pot. See ENNÈS, Pierre et al., ibid.

[16] BERTUCH, Friedrich Justin: Journal des Luxus und der Moden, Weimar, July 1793, p. 407.

[17] LE GOULLON, François: Der elegante Theetisch oder die Kunst einen glänzenden Zirkel auf eine geschmackvolle und anständige Art ohne grossen Aufwand zu bewirthen, Weimar, Wilhelm Hoffmann, 1829, p. 14.

[18] Even though the royal manufacture of porcelain already produced in the 1730s sets such as the 'cabinet doré' (or gilded cabinet) that apparently consists of three different types of cups, the tea, chocolate and coffee set offered by Louis XV to queen Marie Leczinska in 1729 includes only two types of cups. (See HERDA-MOUSSEAUX, Rose-Marie et al. p, 15 et p. 57). The question of the appropriate form of the tea cup for historical reenactment remains unresolved especially when it comes to ''bourgeoises'' practices. The secondary sources we studied does not provide any better answer on this matter. In the catalogue Tea, Coffee or Chocolate?, many examples of cups are simply juxtaposed but the authors did not even bother to explain their function. Similarely, Ennès, in his book entitled Histoire de la table (A History of Table) doesn't bring any more detail about the function of the various types of coexisting cups. Régine de Plinval doesn't shed the light we were expecting either. Nevertheless, it seems that a differanciation in the use of the various forms of cups prevailed only in the first third of the 19th century. Before that time, it looks like – in France at least – that the two forms of cups (litre cups and bowls) could serve for both coffee and tea. This practice is confirmed by the fact that 18th and early 19th centuries sets you can still purchase often consist of two clearly distinct pots (coffee and tea pots) while there was one single type of cup. Besides, several French pictures of the same time show that tea and coffee could be equally served in bowls and litre cups. Yet, the still life paintings only depict bowls.

[19] BERTUCH, Friedrich Justin : Journal des Luxus und der Moden, Weimar, August 1788, p. 336 – 340, Oktober 1788, p. 409 – 414.

[20] This cultural criticism can be found again in July 1793 issue: BERTUCH, Friedrich Justin: Journal des Luxus und der Moden, Weimar, July 1793, p. 407.

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