The Australian Tea Ceremony
Curatorial briefing notes by Kevin Murray
The range of British influence is demonstrated by the extremes of public and private
life. A walk down Melbourne's William Street, between Lonsdale and Bourke, provides a
readily identifiable set of British symbols in Australian public life. The formalities of
the court--the wig and gown, legalistic phrases, deference to the judge--differ little
from those in Old Bailey. It would seem a relatively straightforward matter to identify
these public trappings of British rule for review.
At the other end of the range, however, it may not be so easy to discern where
Britishness begins and ends. If you had to summarise the Australian disposition, what
would it be? The virtues of a `quiet achiever'--lack of fuss, efficiency, down to earth
manner, getting the job done--place pratical value before the expression of feeling. In
1859, the best selling English moralist Samuel Smiles attributed his nation's colonising
talents to a similar shy and practical character:
The English are inartistic for the same reason as they are unsociable. They make good
colonists, sailors and mechanics; they they do not make good singers, dancers, actors,
artistes, or modistes.
Likewise, Australian public life is mostly calm and orderly. When people gather on the
street, they form queues rather than mobs. It is difficult to fathom just how far the
Anglo love of order reaches in our unconscious.
The national identity of the decorative arts comes somewhere between the public and the
personal spheres. We can look to domestic life for evidence of the role that the crafted
object plays in keeping up English appearances.
As an example, take a cup of tea. Imagine a guest invited to share tea in a Camberwell
home on a Sunday afternoon. She is ushered into the lounge room and offered an upholstered
armchair in which to rest. During preliminary conversation--remarks on recent weather or
the purple azaleas--the housewife begins preparation of a pot of tea. Unlike the Japanese
tea ceremony, the drink here must be steaming hot--`bring the pot to the kettle, not the
kettle to the pot'. The pot is fitted with a tea cosy and turned in a ritualistic
The tea is then brought in on a tray with china cups and saucers, sugar bowl, strainer,
teaspoons, small plates, cake forks and a light flour cake, such a sponge, lamington or
scones. While all drink from the same pot, the guest is granted a circumscribed
choice--`How do you take it?' `White with two sugars, please'. Conversation then turns to
family, home renovations, health and holiday plans. There is no room in this ceremony for
fault or recrimination. The only disagreement will come as the guest refuses the offer of
a final cup of tea to depart--`no thanks, it's getting late, I must be off'.
The character of this ritual becomes more distinctive when contrasted with ceremonies
which await guests in other cultures. At the south-east edge of Europe, the entry of a
guest into an Albanian home
begins on a very different footing: shoes are removed before entering the home. In doing
so, the guest sheds the means of individual mobility. Before settling on a rug with his
hosts, it is customary for the guest to attend to the fire and request more wood. While
this occurs, a grandmother sits in the background grinding coffee to a powder in a
Turkish-style mill. Once ground, she places the coffee on a pot with water and sugar and
boils it three times. This brew is then poured into small cups without handles or saucers.
Without asking, the guest is given one of these cups, often with a cigarette or an
anise flavoured spirit called raki. This is received with thanks--`I pray to your honour'.
After information is exchanged about families, the conversation turns to politics,
particularly the trustworthiness of certain candidates. If the meeting goes favourably,
the guest will often leave with a spontaneous gift.
The event can sometimes, however, be marred by insult. According to an Albanian
proverb, `Hospitality honours you, but also creates problems for you.' If hospitality has
been violated, the guest will be offered coffee with the left hand. In an extreme
situation--when the guest is in a state of dishonour due to an unavenged crime--the
traditional code (Kanun) prescribes that the host offers coffee from under his knee.
There aren't that many Albanians in Australia. At the most, those of Albanian
background represent a third of a percent of Australia's population. Yet the presence of
customs such as theirs is important in defining the peculiar Anglo strains that persist in
the Australian way of life. At the heart of this difference is the production of objects
which orchestrate the rituals that bind people together at an intimate level.