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Steeped In History: The Art of Tea on Display at The Fowler Museum


A painting on display.


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August 16th marked the debut of the new exhibition, Steeped in History: The Art of Tea, at UCLA’s renowned Fowler Museum.  Taking a journey through time and around the world, this unique collection features paintings, artifacts, writing, and photographs depicting tea’s history in the global society.  Today more people drink tea than any other beverage other than water, and nearly three billion cups of tea are consumed every day the world over.  Arranged in four sections, the exhibition takes onlookers from the far East to the near West depicting tea’s importance in health, culture, society, war, and spirituality. 

After an introduction to tea varieties, cultivation, and production, the exhibition takes us to China, The Cradle of Tea Culture, and explores the drink’s mythic origins in Southern China.  The ancient Chinese artisans created the most innovative and widely varied teas, and this section of the exhibition includes beautiful porcelain tea bowls dating from the 8th through the 13th centuries, scrolls and watercolors illustrating the Chinese tea trade and culture, and even photographic prints depicting tea-making in Peking.  Be sure to see the lavishly painted portrait of Shen Nong, the legendary inventor of tea, in this section of the exhibition.

Next spectators travel to Japan, in Chado, The Way of Tea in Japan, where tea was first introduced along with Buddhism between 794 and 1185 AD.  This section details how important tea became to the Japanese culture, and how the famous Japanese Tea Ceremony came about.  This area of the exhibition includes stoneware tea caddies, tea bowls, scrolls, and other tea-related artifacts from the 10th century all the way through the 20th century.  Viewers definitely won’t be able to miss the brilliant bed cover decorated with images of tea utensils and other items, suggesting the importance of tea even in the personal lives of the Japanese.

Then, with Tea Craze in the West, the exhibition shows how tea made its way across the globe to become a staple in Western culture, and sometimes, conflict.  This area will feature many early English tea cups, sets, and caddies, in addition to paintings and writings that reveal the status of tea in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries.  This was also the time that tea arrived in the American colonies, and this section boasts early American oil paintings showing the role of tea in colonial life and a large array of tea vessels including a silver sugar urn by Boston patriot and silversmith Paul Revere.  The large piece on display is an impressive French tripod table, circa 1680, that was especially designed for afternoon tea.

Finally, in Tea and Empire, works are displayed that showcase tea as a global commodity at the height of the British Empire.  Historical photographs depict tea parties in Calcutta and tea production in Darjeeling, and reveal the ongoing dialogues about tea in relation to politics, health, society, and agriculture today.  A fun piece to see is the 1939 British advertisement stating “Tea Revives You”.

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.  The Fowler Museum in Westwood is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 12pm to 5pm with extended hours on Thursdays until 8pm.  Located in the northern part of the UCLA campus, parking is available in Lot 4 at a maximum of $10.  Admission is free so make sure to catch this eye-opening exhibit before it retires after November 29th.


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