Time for Tea

On our recent trip to the UK, I became obsessed (quite suddenly, en route to the airport) with the thought of an English Tea. It’s all MB’s fault: as I flicked through a Tea Time baking feature in the magazine she writes for, I came across Victoria sponge, scones and a sticky ginger ring. So you see, with the taste buds thus tantalized, the trip to England would have been a dead-beat, dead-loss without some proper Tea taking.

Let’s get this straight. I’m not talking a cup of earl grey sipped at breakfast, or a mug of builder’s brew slurped in an afternoon slump. No, not the ticket. I wanted English High Tea, with small sandwiches (cucumber and crustless, of course), cake, cream, jam and pots and cups of steaming tea. As the excellent AA Milne once said: “A Proper Tea is much nicer than a Very Nearly Tea, which is one you forget about afterwards.”

Once there, we bee-lined Amberley, for there can be no forgetting this enchanted village in West Sussex with a ticks-all-the-boxes Tea Room at its heart. Here, in a quaint building that oozes charm, everything is home-baked; scones, breads and stands crammed with cake (carrot, coffee, chocolate) and biscuits. Locally roasted coffee, or (for the purists) tea, comes served in great big mugs made by the village potter. We love the owner and are huge fans of her eclectic pets that plop patiently on the floor by the wood burning stove.

Now. I can find no better way to toast a great Tea than John Frederick Peto’s Old Kettle. I did try to find another painting, because you see, we’ve looked at Peto prior to this: he was with us on Jan 29 (buns and tea cup), and on Jun 11 (kipper and kettle). But honestly, can we resist a man who cooks up such rustic and relishable treats? Peto (1854 – 1907) was a painter of trompe l’oeil still-life. He was born in Philadelphia, where there was a still-life tradition established by the Peale family (July 10): he was influenced by Harnett (June 3) and the realism of Eakins (January 19).

In the case of this Old Kettle (c. 1890s) we have what can best be described as a modest picture: small, painted in oil on wood and with mussed-up edges. There are those that point at Peto as an example for how not to do still-life: un-elegant, un-glossed, un-convincing. But frankly I hanker after his homely paintings: I love the long lean matchstick sitting on the ledge, the green-tinged copper on the inside of the lid and the dents that tell of clumsiness or age. All in all, Peto is particularly good at making me feel a certain way: it might not be high-brow, it might not even be brilliant, but it sure does stir up a lovely brew of memories and atmosphere.

In this case he’s got me thinking along the lines of a good cuppa, conviviality and some big old sponge-cake, all teetering and lathered with cream and jam. As one wise man once said “Tea is drunk to forget the din of the world” and I couldn’t agree more: it’s civil and peaceful to sink into a seat and sip and nibble in the late afternoon. And to think Peto’s little picture, with its old kinked kettle, could steep such strong impressions.