Skip to main content

Afternoon Tea

With the Duchess of Sutherland
And the spirits of Cliveden…

From a sinking feeling to a quintessentially British tradition

This self-portrait was created in 1810 when the Duchess of Bedford was 27. The Duchess depicts herself bejewelled in green velvet holding a mask. Several versions of this miniature exist; they were often given as gifts to nearest and dearest. These were painted two years after Anna Maria’s marriage to Francis Russell, Marquis of Tavistock, later 7th Duke of Bedford.

Aside from creating afternoon tea, the Duchess of Bedford was a controversial figure. Queen Victoria found her ‘good natured and obliging’, whilst Lord Melbourne branded her self-serving and ‘a cunning woman’. She was involved in a scandal in 1839 that briefly but severely marred the young Queen Victoria’s reputation; she, with others, accused an unmarried woman, Lady Flora Hastings, of being pregnant. Lady Flora died of a stomach tumour after having to publicly refute the claims.

Anna Maria, Duchess of Bedford (1783-1857), Self-Portrait, c.1810, watercolour on ivory laid on card,
106 x 84 mm,
The Royal Collection Trust, UK

This is the original portrait of the Duchess of Sutherland, painted by the German artist Winterhalter. Winterhalter became famous for executing flattering portraits of royalty and the aristocracy throughout the 19th century and was Queen Victoria’s favourite portraitist.

The Queen went to see it being painted and wrote in her Journal: ‘The picture, which is far advanced, though without any background, is most successful, & a beautiful work of art. The Dss is in a court dress with her train over her arm, & quite “dans le grand style” ‘.

It is likely that the Queen’s approval prompted the Duchess of Sutherland to commission William Corden the Elder, an English portrait artist, to create a copy which she gifted to Queen Victoria on her birthday, 24 May, in 1851.

Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Portrait of Harriet Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, Duchess of Sutherland (1806-1868), 1849, oil on canvas, 1270 x 1016 mm (?), Dunrobin Castle, Sutherland

William Corden the Elder, after Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Portrait of Harriet Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, Duchess of Sutherland (1806-1868), 1849, oil on canvas, 1270 x 1016 mm, Cliveden House, National Trust Collection

This is a mid-19th century copy by an unknown hand of Charles, 2nd Earl Grey, by Sir Thomas Lawrence. The original is in Howick Hall, Northumberland, the ancestral seat of the Earls Grey. Thomas Lawrence painted Earl Grey in 1828, around the time that Earl Grey tea was first blended, and just before he became Prime Minister in 1830.

After Sir Thomas Lawrence, Portrait of Earl Grey (1764-1845), mid-19th century, oil on canvas, 762 x 629 mm, National Portrait Gallery, London

Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792),
1783, oil on canvas, 2325 x 1514 mm National Maritime Museum, London

The Earl of Sandwich is depicted here by Gainsborough against the background of Greenwich Hospital. In his left hand, he holds a plan of the Infirmary of Greenwich Hospital which was built during his second of three terms as First Lord of the Admiralty.

Far from a gambler, he was known to have been a moderate man, more interested in cricket and the music of Handel than cards, but nonetheless his private life was complicated. His marriage was marred by his wife’s mental illness and his mistress, the singer Martha Ray, with whom he had five children, was fatally shot on the steps of Covent Garden theatre by a rival love interest.

This portrait was commissioned for Greenwich Hospital by its then Governor, Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser as a tribute of thanks to the Earl of Sandwich who had given him his patronage and continued to stand by him through difficult times.

Carlo Crivelli, The Last Supper, 1488, oil and tempera on wood, 267 x 753 mm Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

The Last Supper originally served as the centre predella panel for a polyptych in an altarpiece for the Cathedral of Camerino, in the Marche region of Italy. The theatre-like setting looks strange when out of context but the direct, frontal perspective into the scene would have made sense when placed, as it likely was, directly over the altar, at the base of an enormous altarpiece.

Christ is, unsurprisingly, not concerned about the cucumbers that appear in this work. He looks unflinchingly towards Judas, who has is back to us and is distinguishable by his lack of halo.

Cucumbers appear in an inordinate number of Crivelli’s works, most usually dangled to the side of the Virgin’s head. They could be symbolic of her womb; the thick skin of continental cucumbers representing an impenetrable barrier into which seeds have somehow been planted.

In a later Crivelli, depicting Mary and Jesus enthroned between Saints Francis and Sebastian, a large cucumber is positioned to the right of the Virgin’s head and a snail is making its way along the base of the work. It was believed that snails could self-fertilize (some can), and therefore they also came to represent the Virgin for some artists of the period! The small figure in widow’s garb is Oradea Becchetti. She commissioned the altarpiece and was clearly very proud to have done so because the inscription right at the bottom tells us that she paid for the altar and the painting ‘at no small expense of her own money’. An early humble-brag.

Carlo Crivelli, The Virgin and Child with Saints Francis and Sebastian, 1491, egg and oil on poplar, 1753 × 1511 mm, National Gallery, London

Claudio Rinaldi, Four Monks,  late 19th century, oil on canvas, 750 x 1090 mm, Dorotheum, Munich

Claudio Rinaldi worked mostly in Florence and is known for painting genre subjects depicting ordinary people going about their everyday lives. This joyous work is unlikely, therefore, to be portraiture; we can only hope that the monks that Rinaldi interacted with on a regular basis were that happy!

François Gérard, Portrait of Thérésa Tallien (1773-1835), 1804, oil on canvas, 2120 x 1270 mm, Château de Chimay

Thérése Tallien, a Parisian ‘it girl’ in the early 1800s is reputed to have bathed in strawberries. Her salons were also legendary which is hardly surprising since she once appeared at the Paris Opera wearing a white silk dress, as she is here in this gorgeous painting by Gerard, and absolutely nothing else. The famous politician and diplomat, Talleyrand, reportedly commented that one “could not be more sumptuously unclothed!”.

After divorcing her first husband, she had a brief dalliance with Napoleon, and longer dalliances with other men, before finally marrying the Prince of Chimay, gaining some respectability in her final years.

Mme Tallien may have become a princess, but she was unable to wear a coronet festooned with strawberry leaves; they were reserved for high ranking members of the British aristocracy. The coronet of a duchess has eight strawberry leaves. Strawberries symbolise humility, presumably an attractive trait for those occupying exalted positions in any society.

Coronet of a duchess

The strawberry not only symbolises humility but also love, and, occasionally, lust.  This medieval image of courtly love from 1470 is called The Fountain of Life. It appears in a secular manuscript by the Italian friar and humanist Leonardo Dati. There is a strawberry bush in the bottom right section of the work that alludes to the strawberry’s association with eroticism, desire and temptation.

It would seem, however, that the young musician on the right quite doesn’t quite have the maturity to carry off this gig just yet!

Leonardo Dati, The Fountain of Life, miniature from De Sphaera, 1470, Biblioteca Estense, Modena

“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”
                                                                                                                                                                           Henry James