Manchester Art Gallery

A Tea Party

Josef van Aken, 1699 - 1749

A Tea Party

Josef van Aken 1699 - 1749


This is an early example of an English 'Conversation Piece', or informal group portrait, a genre whose evolution was largely informed by Van Aken's knowledge of Dutch and Flemish interior subjects. The figures are dressed in fashionable indoor clothes, the man in an informal gown with a loose cap, instead of a wig. According to period inventories, the room contains fewer objects than normal for a middle-class home, although the objects that are shown signify wealth and gentility. In the 18th century tea was a luxury item, drunk from porcelain tea-bowls without handles, imported from China. The rest of the tea equipment, such as the tripod stand and burner, plate, kettle and measuring spoon depicted in this painting, was usually made of silver. Van Aken, who came to London from Antwerp around 1720, began painting group portraits and genre scenes, before specialising in painting drapery from around 1735. He became the leading exponent of this sub-genre in England, and by the time of his death had painted drapery for almost every important artist of the day.

Display Label

Trading Station How hot drinks shape our lives Hot drinks were a luxury 400 years ago but are now daily essentials. In 2018 over 5.7 million tonnes of tea, 8.7 million tonnes of coffee and 56 million tonnes of sugar were exported worldwide. 7% of Britons drink hot chocolate daily. These drinks were founded on the slave trade and colonialization: Trading Station explores their hidden histories through Manchester Art Gallery’s collections. Coffee and sugar were grown by slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries in the West Indies and Java. Brazilian coffee, dominant from the 1830s, depended on slave labour and Brazil was the last country to abolish slavery in 1888. Slave owners were compensated after abolition but former slaves received nothing. The British established tea plantations in colonial India in the 1850s, where workers endured conditions akin to slavery. Shamefully, today many tea pickers in Assam, India still endure similar poverty. The Gallery’s collections were not assembled to tell the story of hot drinks. They reflect the interests of privileged European collectors of silverware and ceramics. We invite you to add comments and objects, to tell global stories and explore issues that our collections do not address. If you would like to offer to lend an object to this exhibition, for a minimum of six months, please email for information.

Object Name

A Tea Party

Creators Name

Josef van Aken


unframed: 37.4cm x 45.7cm
framed: 53.2cm x 61.4cm

accession number


Collection Group

fine art

Place of creation

United Kingdom




oil paint

On Display

Manchester Art Gallery - Gallery 19 (Design Gallery) - TEMPORARILY CLOSED
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Bequeathed by Mr and Mrs Assheton-Bennett.


© Manchester Art Gallery

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