There are few things that we Brits love quite as much as a cup of tea (although talking about the weather does come a close second!). An obsession that has captivated us since the seventeenth-century, it is something that has trickled down through our visual culture too, from James Gillray’s satirised scenes, set in the newly opened London tea shops of the eighteenth century, to Edward Burra’s in the early part of the twentieth century. A close contemporary of Burra, William Roberts also looked towards the nation’s favourite drink in his 1928 work The Tea Garden, which appears as a highlight of our 12th June sale of Modern & Post-War British Art.
Unseen in public since 1929 the painting captures a group of well-dressed guests at tea in the park – most probably in North London’s Regent’s Park, which was a short walk from the artist’s home.
Roberts had been embroiled in Bohemian culture since the early 1910s, whilst he was studying alongside the likes of C.R.W. Nevinson and Stanley Spencer at London’s Slade School of Art. Drawn to the hustle and bustle of the crowds of Fitzrovia and Soho, he soaked up the nightlife rich in the new wave of American influenced jazz and ragtime. He and his wife Sarah, who he married in 1922, were also particularly fond of the Harlequin Tea Rooms off Regent Street, and could frequently be found there throughout the 1920s.
Roberts had a keen eye for detail and observation, and using the distinctive style he developed between the wars was able to articulate the intricacies of social interaction through gesture and facial expression, something which is in full play in The Tea Garden.
The figure’s gestures are immediately readable as their long and delicate fingers clasp teacups, sandwiches and cigarettes, their gesticulations animating their ongoing discussions. Roberts carefully builds the sense of movement by ensuring that the composition never allows the viewer's eye to settle for long in one spot, forcing our gaze to zigzag through the group. Moving cyclically we notice, for example, the woman who raises her pinkie and closes her eyes as she imbibes her hot beverage, the couple next to her entwined in an embrace, as well as the waitress in the bib who is serving the energetic crowd.
Roberts found particular humour in the clash of classes one increasingly found in these public settings, and here we see a strolling elegantly dressed couple - a lady with gloved hands who grasps her smart clutch and a finely suited gentleman with a cane and pipe- who have clearly taken notice of the rather brash crowd before them. The lady looks rather concerned as her partner smirks, and they provide the perfect buttoned up counter point to the exuberant scene in the foreground.
The scene that Roberts captures even now, nearly ninety years on, overflows with activity and a buzzing colour palette. Looking at the work you expect, at any moment the gentle tinkle of porcelain and silver spoons; the low burble of mindless chitter-chatter and the faint, far-off birdsong in the park. It’s time to dust off those picnic blankets – it’s time for tea!
Modern & Post-War British Art, 12/13 June 2017
Cornish Afternoon Tea Menu at Sotheby’s Restaurant
To coincide with the London To St Ives sale on 29 June, Sotheby’s Restaurant is offering a special Cornish Afternoon Tea Menu that includes a selection of savoury and sweet Cornish Pasties, a portion of scones, white chocolate and lemon cheesecake and tea or coffee. Prices are £26 per person or £38 per person (including a glass of champagne). The Cornish Afternoon Tea is available Mondays to Fridays, 3pm until 4.45pm. The full Cornish Afternoon Tea needs to be pre-booked at least 24 hours in advance.