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On Exhibit: Steeped In Tea


By Norma Meyer

Published Jul 1, 2009 10:00 AM

Long before teatime meant slurping a Green Tea Ice Blended, the ancient Chinese sipped anti-oxidizing teas to cure their ills.

Tea, it turns out, has brewed up quite a tantalizing history since being discovered, or so the tale goes, when a leaf blew into a Chinese emperor's cauldron of boiling water 5,000 years ago. Over the centuries, throw opium trade, slave labor, smuggling and colonial rebellions into the pot.


"There is this whole rich history around tea and it's not all wonderful and peaceful and dainty ladies drinking tea at a Victorian table," says Beatrice Hohenegger, guest curator of Steeped in History: The Art of Tea, the UCLA Fowler Museum exhibition about the politics and culture of tea that opens August 16 and runs through the end of November.

To its immense credit, the steaming aromatic liquid helped sober up the English. Before tea arrived in Europe in the 17th century, the Queen's subjects washed down their eggs with stiffer stuff.

"The British were having beer for breakfast before that. Because it was a safer drink than water," Hohenegger notes.

Tea stirred up the American settlers, who staged the infamous Boston Tea Party to protest Britain's tax on the commodity. But Hohenegger points out there were lesser-known pre-Revolutionary War "tea parties" — in 1774 an angry mob forced the owner of the tea-loaded brig Peggy Stewart to torch his ship and then cheered as it sank in flames.

The exhibition offers plenty to eyeball as it explores the conflicts — and Zen — surrounding the world's most consumed beverage after water. From around the globe, Chinese and English paintings, Japanese screens, rare photographs and exquisite teapots tell the highly caffeinated history stemming from the lowly Camellia sinensis plant. Whether you prefer Lipton or chai lattes, it's a chance to ogle 1,000-year-old Chinese tea bowls, a kimono-shaped futon cover embellished with Japanese tea ceremony utensils, and a gilded, tortoiseshell tea table with ties to French King Louis XIV.

It could be your cup of tea.

Steeped in History: The Art of Tea. Fowler Museum. Aug. 16-Nov. 29, Wednesdays through Sundays, noon-5 p.m.; Thursdays, noon-8 p.m. Free. For more information, call (310) 825-4361 or visit