Joseph Van Aken

An English Family at Tea


Not on display

Joseph Van Aken c.1699–1749
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 994 × 1162 mm
frame: 1245 × 1405 × 120 mm
Presented by Lionel A. Crichton through the Art Fund 1930

Display caption

This group portrait of an unidentified family and their servants was probably painted soon after Van Aken moved from his native Antwerp to London. Tea was an expensive commodity, as were all the items related to its consumption: the tea table, silver, and porcelain. The tea box is shown in the foreground. Its contents were normally kept locked by the lady of the household, who is shown dispensing the precious leaves from a container.

Demonstrating wealth, domesticity and genteel informality, tea-drinking came to epitomise civilised behaviour in the eighteenth century.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

N04500 An English Family at Tea c.1720

Oil on canvas 993×1162 (39 1/8×45 3/4)
Presented by Lionel A. Crichton to the National Gallery through the National Art-Collections Fund 1930; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1955
PROVENANCE ...; Charles Newton-Robinson 1908 when lent to RA (not in his sale Christie's 3 April 1914); ...; Lionel A. Crichton by 1930
EXHIBITED RA Winter 1908 (102 as ‘The Walpole Family’ by Hogarth); AC tour 1946 (4 as ‘A Tea Party’, painter unknown); on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum 1973–1975; English Portraits, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo 1975(16)
LITERATURE R. Edwards, ‘The Conversation Pieces of Joseph Van Aken’, Apollo, XIII, 1936, p.79; Davies 1946, p.15; G.B.Hughes, ‘Tea-Kettles and Urn-Stands’, Country Life, 28 December 1951, p.2155, fig.1, and 13 September 1956, p.549, fig.1 (for discussion of silver and furniture); R. Edwards, Early Conversation Pictures, 1954, p.167, ill.78

This early example of an informal group portrait of a family and its servants is clearly a realistic representation of the ceremony of tea-drinking in about 1720, although the architectural setting might be fanciful. The dating is based on the appearance of the costume and silver, both of which have a strong element of the Queen Anne style. The sitters remain unidentified. The canvas has been cut on the left-hand side, so that the maidservant holding the kettle probably did not originally occupy the very central position she does now; other signs of the loss are the remnants of a shadow on the floor on the left, and the absence of the object which the gentleman on the extreme left should probably be looking at.

The Bacchus statue appears in other works by Van Aken, and must have been a standard prop: for instance in ‘Sportsman and his Servant in the Grounds of Country House’ (Sotheby's 12 March 1986, lot 108, repr. in col.) it is placed in open parkland. It also appears in ‘A Musical Conversation’ signed by J.F. Nollekens (Sotheby's 28 November 1953, lot 38, 477×629, 18 3/4×24 3/4), which is so close in handling and style to the signed Van Aken ‘Music Party’ in the Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, that one suspects the two Antwerp-born artists of close collaboration in England. The ‘Bacchus’ has close affinities with Louis Garnier's statue of the same subject carved sometime before 1699 for the gardens of Versailles, of which many small bronze casts were made (the compiler is grateful to Dr Jennifer Montagu for this information). Joseph Van Aken's sale at Langford's on 11 February 1750 (cat.: BL C119–182) included a large number of casts and terracotta models among them; as lot 49, a ‘Bacchus by Mr Rysbrack’. It is possible to speculate that this could have been the model for the statue in the picture, although Rysbrack's only otherwise recorded ‘Bacchus’, made in 1750 for Stourhead and now in the Gulbenkian Collection in Lisbon, does not resemble the statue in this picture (information kindly supplied by Malcolm Baker of the Victoria and Albert Museum).

The picture was first correctly attributed to Van Aken by Ralph Edwards in 1936. Its previous attribution to Hogarth was never generally accepted, and a false inscription ‘WmH’ on the tea-caddy was removed during restoration in 1956. The compilers are grateful to Stella Mary Newton for help on dating the costume.

Published in:
Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth: British Painters Born 1675-1709, Tate Gallery Collections, II, London 1988

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