High Tea on the Icy Sea

By Ciarán Lavelle

They came from the North and they came prepared, well they came with everything they thought they needed, only stopping short of a kitchen sink. The men of the early exploration of the Antarctic continent were no doubt confident that they were going to have a cold time of it. And a good cup of tea and coffee was an essential to beat back the chill of the icy landscape. When it comes to tea the British know how to plan with a large collection of tea and coffee remaining in their original ration tins. The Cape Adare hut contains many fine examples of the hardwearing workman like iron-enamelled cups for everyday use from which the explorers imbibed this important heat infused nectar. These sturdy cups have suffered corrosion and enamel loss but still look much like they would have when their owners would have been huddled round drinking the steaming contents to the chorus penguin hoards nestled in the landscape around the small hut. The results of the removal of the iron corrosion and stabilisation of the cup before preparing for the cups return to the Antarctic climate can be seen in the pictures below.

The enamelled mug after conservation with the remains of the last cup of tea still visible in the mug.

Although drinking tea and coffee was no doubt a common place necessity this did not mean they couldn’t drink it in style. In the hut there can be found beautiful examples of fine bone china tea cups. Unfortunately the more fragile fine bone china mugs have not survived the trials and tribulations of the Antarctic environment as well as their metal cousins. This fine bone china mug came across our desk in multiple fragments leaving me with an inviting 3D jigsaw to reconstruct.

The bone china tea cup before conservation – an inviting 3D jigsaw and a challenge accepted

The task of the conservation process is to reconstruct it so it can be reversed in the future if it is needed so great care is taken and deliberation is needed to decide on the best adhesive to use.

The bone china teacup after conservation

In the end we were able to bring back to life evidence of essential fine dining accompaniment. And as I look at the cup I can imagine a gruff beaded man in well-worn extreme weather clothing sitting in that small cramped candle lit hut sipping from the cup like a fine European gentle man, pinkie raised, enjoying a bit of high tea on his icy sea.


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