A Tea Party
Thomas Webster


1862
Oil on panel
Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston


 

Objective Description
     In the center of the composition, four children surround a small table set for afternoon tea. The oldest child pours tea from the teapot into one of four cups. The milk pitcher rests on the floor next to her, as does a plate with cakes. The three younger children sit enraptured, concentrating on the actions of the older girl.
     Behind the children, a larger round table is also set for tea—grownup tea. The silver or pewter teapot rests alongside a sugar bowl on a tray. Bread and butter complete the set-up.
     In the shadowed corner, an older person placidly sits drinking her tea. She wears a bonnet and shawl, and a lap rug is draped over her knees. She is looking down, not engaging the viewer.
     The right hand portion of the painting is filled with a large curtained window. The heavy draperies are pulled back, allowing natural light to enter the dim room. Half curtains of netting rest peacefully on the windowsill.
     The remaining contents of the sparsely decorated room surround the children. A badminton racket and birdie, a wagon with some toys, and a tossed hat are on the floor in the lower front. The background hearth frames the oldest child. A green mantle-scarf balances the horizontal lines of the tables and children. A scarf-draped chair rests in the left-hand corner, balancing the older woman, and together they frame the children in the foreground.

Subjective Analysis
     
This painting is filled with ambiguities, and is meant to indicate a 19th century middle class version of the idea of poverty. In a large, sparsely furnished and dimly lit 'rustic interior,' the clean and well dressed children affect adult behavior by having their tea poured by a surrogate "mum," the oldest child. The little table is clothed and the teacups and saucers are part of a set. The inclusion of a luxury item, cakes, with their tea also indicates a bit of extra money, as does the childrenŐs toys.
     The adult table is set with a metallic tea service, complete with a sugar bowl, sugar being an expensive item as well. A spacious room, mantelpiece decorations and a lace curtain also indicate an element of middle class prosperity. The rug on the bare floor separates the children from the roughness of their sparse life as well as the wood.

I think one of the chief delights was the white dimity curtains in the bedrooms, they in their first freshness always contained a good deal of the essence of the first evening in the country, when we children roamed from room to room... and then out again to the garden wild with happiness and resting in the knowledge that it was to last a whole summer.

Emily Moberly, 1852 (Dulce Domum, 1911)