A refined Chinese export painting depicting ‘The Tea shop’

Canton, early 19th century

Ink and watercolour on silk, H. 63.5 x W. 52.3 cm

The painting shows a coastal area with a tea warehouse, one room with workers sorting the tea on long tables, while in the courtyard at the back, tea is packed in large boxes. The other room in the front is a sales room with various signs showing the name of the shop Yu shen cha hao, the different kinds of tea for sale and salesmen selling tea to customers.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, in the thriving international port of Guangzhou, series of paintings showing tea, silk or porcelain production were produced by studios of Chinese artists for Europeans and Americans coming to buy these products in China. Usually, a series of twelve paintings would show how farmers grew and harvested tea on their small land holdings; how the tea was transported over the mountains to wholesale centres like in the present painting; and how the tea was further transported to the international port of Canton where European agents acting for the various companies would select and buy the tea to be boarded on ships to be delivered in Europe or America. However, whether the present painting ever belonged to such a series of tea production paintings or is an independent painting is not known.