A print only a few inches wide depicts a man wearing a loose flowing garment and a pointed hat. He reclines against a stone pediment, apparently engaged in romantic conversation with a similarly exotically dressed woman, who holds a fan in her right hand and – like the man – a cup in her left. On the table between them rests an oval-shaped urn. To the right, a labourer waters a bush, whilst on the left – against a background of distant mountains – a many-storied pagoda rises.
A second print offers a slightly disturbing image of a large insect, with leaf-like wings, crawling across a landscape of rolling hills, with some large chests below bearing markings representing Chinese writing.
A third features an elaborate frame in which are embedded two similar chests, another man in flowing robes and pointed hat, and a cylindrical container marked ‘Finest Plain Green Tea’. The frame wraps around text naming the business of James Randall, who traded at ‘the Golden Lyon on the West Side of Charing Cross’ in the 1770s, and who ‘sells all sorts of fine teas, coffee, and chocolate at the lowest Prices’. Indeed, all three of these engraved designs are eighteenth-century advertisements for London-based grocers selling tea from China.
They are ‘trade cards’, typical of the exquisitely illustrated advertisements circulated by metropolitan retailers, many thousand of which survive thanks to the obsessions of collectors such as Sarah Sophia Banks (1744-1818) and furniture magnate Ambrose Heal (1872-1959), and now housed in the British Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings. The mass-printing associated with the newspaper press in the nineteenth century could not accommodate designs of such intricacy, meaning that these beautiful eighteenth century survivals can be seen as an early high-watermark in advertising design, that arguably was not to be seen again until the late twentieth century.
Largely dismissed in academic study for much of the twentieth century, the awakening interest in eighteenth century consumer society in recent decades has brought new attention to these unique archives. I have identified over 300 unique cards advertising businesses selling tea, dating from the period 1730-1830. My particular interest here lies in the window these trade cards offer into how eighteenth century consumers encountered tea, a dried leaf which was delivered to London wharves – many thousands of tons a year – via the astonishing mechanics of an international trade overseen by the East India Company. What might these advertisements tell us about the ways in which British consumers were imagined to understand the distant land in which their tea had been harvested and prepared for sale? How do they script the eighteenth-century buyer’s encounter with tea? The idea that I’m exploring here is that these trade cards might be understood as an early site of cultural encounter between Britain and China, distorted through the fabricating lens of product promotion and endorsement… though no less interesting, of course, as a result.
Read more on our tea blog or get a copy of our book available at all good bookshops: Empire of Tea: the Asian Leaf that Conquered the World, with Markman Ellis and Richard Coulton
All images rights reserved by British Library.