Figure 1: W.L.H. Skeen & Company, Plucking the leaf, ca. 1880. Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library (RCS Y303E/7).Figure 1: W.L.H. Skeen & Company, Plucking the leaf, ca. 1880. Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library (RCS Y303E/7).

A young woman is photographed on a tea plantation in Sri Lanka. Subdued before the camera, she stands stiffly, her hands resting atop a tea bush, posed in accordance with a romanticizing colonial gaze (Figure 1). Her body is bedecked with the exotic decor of bangles and large earrings; the creases of her sari are juxtaposed with the smooth, shiny surfaces of the large tea leaves before her. Her status as labourer is affirmed by the tumpline she wears across her forehead. It supports a large collection basket, nearly overflowing, but the woman does not strain or stoop under its weight. Shot from below, her profile is set against a luminous sky, she is monumentalized, her labour seemingly effortless. W.L.H. Skeen & Company, the commercial photography firm that produced the image in the 1880s, titled it Plucking the leaf. The picture is part of a ubiquitous motif in tea advertising utilized from the end of the nineteenth century to today: images of young, submissive South Asian women picking amid an abundance of leaves and seemingly lost in thought.[1] Her South Asian attire and dark complexion signal transfer of tea production from China to India and Sri Lanka (then under British control).

For nineteenth-century British viewers, such images bespoke tea’s transition from a foreign commodity to an imperial and national product. Collected in tourist albums and circulated as picture postcards, they were part of a longer history of popular imagery of South Asian labour that accentuated passiveness as well as exoticism. The act of harvesting “two leaves and a bud”—the tips of the bush that are plucked for tea processing—was advertised as a critical step in ensuring a high-quality final product. Its enactment for the photographer allowed a colonial scene and practice to be seen in the heart of the metropole, where it documented the success of industry and imperialism on the subcontinent.[2]

Through photography, tea production became linked with the body of the South Asian labourer beginning in the 1880s. Both men and women were employed on plantations, but tea plucking, considered a delicate task, was primarily performed by women. The quality of tea has long been associated with women’s bodies and the romanticizing of female labour is almost as old as the myths concerning the first infusion of the beverage.[3] While the fetishization of female tea pickers has been the subject of anthropological and historical studies,[4] these discussions have yet to position that familiar trope within a history of visual representations.[5] Acknowledged in recent literature as the most pervasive images of India and Ceylon in British consumer culture,[6] the tea picker “signals the margin.” [7] According to Piya Chatterjee, “She is emblematic of a certain silence. Her stories sit in the shadows of impossible representations.”[8] Consistently denied an individual voice or history, the silent, sensual, female worker was—like the tea she picked—styled as an exotic colonial commodity.

Idealized Photographs of Women Picking Tea

The visual trope of women gathering tea served as a powerful tool for obscuring the realities of the harsh working conditions on tea estates.[9] The overexposed sky in Plucking the leaf renders the background entirely blank and the picture offers a severely limited account of a plantation indicated solely by the leaves surrounding the figure. There is no greater sense, for example, of the squalid dwellings, low pay, or diseases that spread quickly among the workforce.[10] Eleanor Hight and Gary Sampson, in their study of colonial photography, explain,

As objects of fascination, colonized people were often assigned positions formerly occupied by a colorful cast of conventional characters – shepherds, pagans, gypsies, loose-living women, and other roughcast types – who, when not appearing as subjects themselves, became little more than stock figures in a colonized landscape. Their placement in these preconceived roles helped Westerners negotiate the personally threatening experience of the unknown by selectively transforming uneasy or awkward, even hostile, cultural confrontations into a more palatable form.[11]

This strategy for distancing the viewer from the mundane realities of the represented subject is much in evidence in photographs of tea plantation labour. In another image by the same firm, the central subject is further isolated, removed from the field and situated before a blank wall (Figure 2). Without gleaming jewelry, the eye lingers instead on the tendrils of hair that hang at the nape of her neck. Following the bend of her arm, the eye passes exposed flesh before the gaze lingers on her hand, where two leaves and a bud are grasped between thumb and forefinger. The women photographed are anonymous types and both compositions emphasize two things: the female body and tea.

Figure 2: W.L.H. Skeen & Company, The bud and first leaf – our manufactured tea, ca. 1880. Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library (RCS Y303E/8).Figure 2: W.L.H. Skeen & Company, The bud and first leaf – our manufactured tea, ca. 1880. Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library (RCS Y303E/8).

Chatterjee offers insights that help to give a voice to the stubborn silence of the women in these photographs.[12] Conducting field research in India in the 1990s, she spoke with several present-day tea workers after showing them contemporary Brooke Bond tea packages bearing the image of a young woman (likely drawn from a photograph) who gracefully gathers tea. “This woman looks like a film star,” exclaimed one of the tea harvesters interviewed at Sarah’s Hope Tea Estate in West Bengal, India.[13] In each Brooke Bond image, the tea picker’s hair is covered by a veil, her wrists are adorned with bracelets, and she has a serene expression on her face that gives no sign of hardship of hours of outdoors labour in the direct sun, burdened by a large basket. The woman quoted above, a real-life tea picker, responds to the images by drawing attention to her own, calloused hands in comparison to the idealized Brooke Bond figure, explaining, “The bushes cut into them, and the tea juice makes them black. Feel how hard they are.”[14] With these words, she exposes the fictional glamour of the tea plucker trope that is otherwise disguised by the so-called “truthfulness” of the photograph. Since the emergence of the tea plucker as an advertising trope, the feminine beauty of the plantation labourer is often equated with her natural surroundings.

The picturesque has been a key descriptor for such images since the late nineteenth century, intertwining an appreciation of the tropical landscape with the sight of the women’s bodies. Recent studies of British colonial photography show that the characterization of South Asian women as “picturesque” was commonplace across the Empire. The fruit industry came to prominence in Jamaica during the same years as the tea industry in South Asia. At this time, following the abolition of slavery, the importation of indentured Indian labourers to British Caribbean colonies increased. Anna Arabindan-Kesson notes that the women among them were understood as picturesque “sights” within the Jamaican landscape.[15] Her analysis of postcards and travel literature reveals a parallel characterization to tea photographs. In one scene depicting Indian women preparing rice, she describes the “picturesque” as similarly buttressed by the attention given to the women’s bodies and their adornment, which both inform and entrance the viewer.[16] Arabindan-Kesson argues that this attention to the female form constitutes a visual formula that characterized the Indian body through accessories as well as gendered forms of labour (such as cooking and washing). While attention on the female form emerged simultaneously in the context of Britain’s South Asian colonies, the kinds of gendered work found in the Jamaican scenes are not as tightly linked to the British colonial economy as the tea plucker.[17] Thus, the Indian and Sri Lankan photographs merge the “picturesque” attention on the accoutrements of saris and metal bangles together with a novel form of gendered and imperial labour.

Krista Thompson also studies early photographs from Jamaica and has written extensively on the role of business and the picturesque in tourist imagery. According to Thompson, the picturesque motif is enacted by making visual the so-called positive effects of colonialism and is called upon to counter criticisms of labour practices.[18] As Thompson explains, “The picturesque provided [companies] with a... pictorial mask through which they could disguise their practices and defend their moral causes, locally and globally.”[19] Companies skillfully employed the aesthetic to their advantage, and in India and Sri Lanka the South Asian woman emerged as the symbol of the British tea trade—a figure that sparked consumer fantasies of distant lands and was commodified alongside the grocery staple she laboriously produced. At the same time this trope emerged in advertising, the tea plucker became an ethnographic “type.”

Cameron, Colonial Vision, and Ethnographic Photography

Indian-born British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron spent the last years of her life in Sri Lanka.[20] Cameron’s twenty-six surviving photographs from this period are generally considered to constitute a distinct phase of her career, disconnected from the work she made in England—and far less discussed. Unlike the “famous men and fair women”[21] featured in her earlier pictures, unnamed domestic servants or plantation labourers from her family’s estates on the island people her late photos. Although they have been little studied by Cameron scholars, her Sri Lankan scenes are the most widely collected photographs of plantation labour in South Asia and are held in museums across the United States and Europe.

Jeff Rosen astutely argues that a colonialist viewpoint unites all of Cameron’s allegorical imagery.[22] Rosen’s most in-depth analysis of Cameron’s images from Sri Lanka concerns a series of portraits of botanist and artist Marianne North, the only white European subject to be photographed by Cameron after 1875. What is left unexplored is how the colonial agenda, persistent throughout her artistic practice and written correspondence, surface in the other, more numerous, images that Cameron made while in Sri Lanka—the ones that are caption-less photographs featuring dark-complexioned men and women. Building upon Rosen’s analysis, I situate Cameron’s late work within the growing popularity of ethnographic photography. Viewing Cameron’s images of young South Asian women in light of the burgeoning plantation economy in Ceylon, it is possible to explore how female tea pickers come to embody a symbol of “good” labour that bolsters the picturesque “mask” in advertisements for the tea industry.

Although Cameron was educated in France and spent almost thirty years of her married life in England, she maintained strong connections to Britain’s South Asian colonies throughout her lifetime. Her father was an East India Company official and her mother, a descendent of French aristocracy, was raised in the French colony of Pondicherry.[23] Her husband, Charles Hay Cameron, was a government official who played a significant role in rewriting the legal codes for land ownership in Sri Lanka. He was at one point the largest single landowner on that island.[24] Ten years after they married, the Camerons left India and moved their growing family to England, where Cameron famously began her photographic career in the early 1860s. On the Isle of Wight they purchased a home that they called Dimbola Lodge, named after their Ceylonese estate. In 1875, she and her husband relocated to Sri Lanka, where they lived for the rest of their lives.

Cameron’s Sri Lankan photographs continue in her typical experimental style while also touching on common tropes developed in the region. She composed multiple photographs of an unidentified South Asian woman posed in profile outdoors, against a fence covered in vines. In a seated version, the woman’s arms are positioned so that one is folded across her lap, while the other is bent so that her hand rests upon the opposite shoulder near the viewer. Her fingers, resting gracefully along her collarbone, display three large rings. In a standing version, the woman’s jewelry is less prominent; instead, the cascading folds of her sari draw the viewer’s eye across the picture plane (Figure 3). Like in “A Woman Plucking,” attention is given to the woman’s attire. The composition is reminiscent of an untitled photograph Cameron created not long before she left England, in which a white European woman is positioned, also in profile, standing before a tall, flowering bush. There too, billowing folds of cloth surround the figure, but her arms extend, grasping the leaves.[25] The model in this case was Mary Hillier, who, like the unidentified Sri Lankan sitter, was also employed in the Cameron household.

Figure 3: Julia Margaret Cameron, Woman, Ceylon, ca. 1875-1879. The Art Institute of Chicago (1970.844).Figure 3: Julia Margaret Cameron, Woman, Ceylon, ca. 1875-1879. The Art Institute of Chicago (1970.844).

Although Cameron left the Sri Lankan photograph untitled, in the 2003 catalogue raisonné authors Julian Cox and Colin Ford titled the image, Woman, Ceylon.[26] A copy of the photograph is in the collection of the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, where it is entitled not “Woman, Ceylon” but Woman Tea Plantation Worker, ca. 1877—a much more specific, descriptive title. Many of Cameron’s photographs were kept in albums, where they were given more particular captions, despite the absence of tea plants in the pictures.[27] In the case of Cameron’s Sri Lankan photographs, considering these alternative titles allows for a better understanding of how they were appreciated at the time of their creation, suggesting Cameron’s possible commercial aspirations, and giving a symbolic meaning to the photographs of tea plucking.

The lack of allegorical titles for Cameron’s Sri Lankan pictures have led scholars to infer a dramatic shift in her approach to photography once she left England. Cox and Ford assert that she adopted an ethnographic and descriptive style closer to the “conventional topographical photograph—map making and skeleton rendering” that she herself had denigrated earlier in her career.[28] Rather than viewing Cameron’s photographs as mere anthropological studies, I argue that the categorization of these men and women as plantation workers, on which colonial mythologies were envisioned, imbued her images with an allegorical meaning of their own that is in keeping with both colonial mentalities of the period and Cameron’s photographic practice.

While we do not know the identities of Cameron’s sitters from her Sri Lankan images—they remain a mystery like the silenced figure in Skeen’s Plucking the leaf—we do know what Cameron thought about the effects of colonization for the Ceylonese. Study of her extensive written correspondence shows that she believed earnestly in the “civilizing mission” of the British in their colonies. In Victoria Olsen’s biography of Cameron, the author accounts that she “wrote explicitly about colonialist attitudes that shaped her life and role in the world in the last years.”[29] For instance, Cameron expressed support of the idea that an innate sense of honour and virtue justified the colonial officer’s rule, and further, she acknowledged her belief in the moral superiority of the British Empire, which “subdued its subjects, inspired loyalty and obedience.”[30] Depictions of “natives” as “lazy” or “indolent” are common throughout a range of colonial accounts and official documents from both Sri Lanka and India, and Cameron’s letters are no different. Furthermore, she wrote about the perceived “benefits” (which Cameron emphasizes in her letter by underlining the word) of labour for the local population.[31] Thus, a key component of the “civilizing mission,” as espoused by Cameron, was a belief in the moral opportunities created through colonial industries, such as the creation of new occupations like harvesting tea. This idea was accompanied by a parallel search for plantation labour to support the growing economy in India and Sri Lanka.

The classification of indigenous peoples through emerging anthropological studies overlapped with planters’ quests for an ideal plantation labour. Certain groups of people were identified as “wild,” “indolent,” or “fickle and lazy,” and thus deemed by planters as ill-suited for wage labour.[32] As a result, in India and Sri Lanka, the migration and importation of foreign workers became an essential component of recruiting the necessary numbers—and “types”—to sustain agricultural ventures. In Sri Lanka, Indian Tamils, not Sinhalese, were the preferable “type” whose labour ensured the expansion, and ultimately the success, of British industry. This history of colonial labour is not commonly interspersed with writing on nineteenth-century photography, but it offers a key to understanding the layers of meaning in Cameron’s late work, as well as the prominent use of “Tamil” in titles of prints and photographs of tea pluckers.

Olsen suspects that Cameron did not have a specific agenda when she made these late images but suggests the possibility that “the only photographic project she could envision pursuing in Ceylon would be an ethnographic one.”[33] This might seem at odds with Cameron’s professed dedication to fine art photography, but it points to another component of her career that likely extended from her days in England to those in Sri Lanka: her desire to earn a profit. Following a devastating blight that crippled the coffee industry, Cameron’s family was plunged into debt and obliged to borrow from friends and relatives. Robin Kelsey calls her career, split between artistic ambitions and financial worries, a “divided practice.”[34]

I contend that Cameron’s images from Sri Lanka can be understood as both market-driven ethnographic scenes and metaphors of Empire. Kelsey asserts that the theatricality of her subject matter, requiring a sitter to stand-in as a symbol of Empire, is connected to her own act of “performing Englishness.”[35] Focusing only on her photographs made in England, he writes that Cameron produced a domestic space and studio that was “a model for national and imperial ideals.”[36] According to Kelsey, “a defense of the colonial culture,” a “colonial cast,” and “colonial fantasy” underpin her British oeuvre. I see these threads continuing in Cameron’s presentation of the anonymous working-class subjects she photographed in Sri Lanka and may have cast as ideal plantation workers. Furthermore, Cameron’s work echoes a growing popularity for ethnographic pictures. Plantation labourers were an emerging category collected by tourists and compiled in photography albums.

Elizabeth Edwards argues for the significance of photography in British anthropology in the mid-nineteenth century and asks what makes a photograph anthropological. According to Edwards, “at its simplest...any photograph from which an anthropologist could gain useful, meaningful visual information.”[37] Importantly, she writes that circulation of such images was by no means “restricted” to anthropological circles. Edwards explains that two powerful interrelated contexts apply to the images regardless of their intended audience: the perception of “otherness” made manifest in theories of race, and the expansion and maintenance of European colonial power. There is little evidence for exactly how Cameron’s late images circulated, and following Edwards’ criteria, all of Cameron’s pictures of plantation labourers are equally successful as ethnographic images. Simultaneously commercial subject matter and aiming for high art, interpreting the compositions as revealing a moral belief about British colonialism, enables greater continuity between her Sri Lanka scenes and earlier compositions.

Consider another Sri Lankan photograph, a portrait made indoors, which is titled in the catalogue raisonné as Young Woman, Ceylon (Figure 4).[38] In the picture an unidentified girl is photographed, alone, wrapped in layers of white drapery. The figure looks straight towards the camera and the composition bears similarity to many of Cameron’s religious photographs. There is no clear indication (such as a title) that Young Woman, Ceylon is meant to be a Madonna, yet that is how the image is commonly discussed. Rosen argues that this “native Madonna” is “unresolved,” claiming that the picture is not convincing because the subjects’ skin tone challenges Western expectations for how a Madonna should appear.[39] Contradicting this interpretation, Olsen argues that the figure may have been an even more appropriate subject for a biblical character in Cameron’s eyes due to her race, the very source of Rosen’s proclaimed failing. Olsen explains that Cameron, like others in her period, used the term “oriental” to describe both Arabs and South Asians.[40] Thus, the “oriental” model could have made this image even more akin to the historical Mary in Bethlehem, born in the Middle East.[41]

Figure 4: Julia Margaret Cameron, Ceylonese Woman, 1875-1879. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (69.607.3).Figure 4: Julia Margaret Cameron, Ceylonese Woman, 1875-1879. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (69.607.3).

Marie Czach proposed that scholars’ lack of attention on Cameron’s late work might stem from its nonconformance with “what a Julia Margaret Cameron photograph should look like.”[42] Perhaps the true failing of her later pictures is their inability to match expectations for her work, and one of those key expectations is the presentation of white European bodies. Complicating matters further is an alternate title for the copy of Young Woman, Ceylon held in Bradford, where it is labelled Young Ceylonese Woman Plantation Worker, ca. 1875-1876.[43]

Cameron’s images of dark-skinned women, deemed “unsuccessful” or “unresolved” when considered in terms of Western subject matter, function most successfully as symbols of picturesque colonial labourer (which may account for collectors’ titles that identify them as such). Phyllis Rose described Cameron’s approach to finding models in England, writing that, when “she looked at a domestic servant with a mop and a bucket, her imagination erased the mop and the bucket.” Cameron, instead, “saw the woman as the current exemplar of some timeless, enduring type.”[44] Rose’s description of Cameron’s eye for seeking out models continues in stories from Sri Lanka.[45] There, however, the terms “timeless” and “type” take on new connotations. In the nineteenth-century, omnipresent racist discourse pegged “oriental” cultures as static and unchanging.

When Cameron’s compositions are compared with other photographs made in Sri Lanka, it becomes clear that Tamil plantation workers serve a dual purpose as both advertisements for an industry (tea), and general stand-ins for a “type” of South Asian labourer. A photomontage entitled “Types of Native Races met with in Ceylon” makes even more explicit the link between tea picker and ethnography (Figure 5). It was included in an album The Royal Visit to Ceylon dated April, 1901, commemorating the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York.[46] The assemblage, printed by W.L.H Skeen & Company, features twenty-six distinct “types” of “natives,” each numbered and identified through a corresponding key printed below the image. On the bottom left corner is number twenty, the very same image as Plucking the leaf, here labelled instead as “Tamil Tea Plucker.” Consequently, the growth of the British tea estates gave birth to a new ethnicity, the “estate Tamils” and the “Tamil tea plucker,” within three decades of the introduction of the tea industry to the island.[47]

Figure 5: W.L.H. Skeen & Company, “Types of Native Races met with in Ceylon,” The Royal Visit to Ceylon, April 1901, 1901. Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library (QM2/61).Figure 5: W.L.H. Skeen & Company, “Types of Native Races met with in Ceylon,” The Royal Visit to Ceylon, April 1901, 1901. Reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library (QM2/61).

Although some scholars suggest that Cameron completely turned her back on her artistic mode of photography when she moved to Sri Lanka, it is possible to read her photographs as an extension of her earlier practice. There is both a moral and political reference in the images, as well as evidence of Kelsey’s “divided practice.” Labelled “Tamil Cooly” or “Tea Plantation Labourer,” these images have a symbolic subject, with Imperial significance; Cameron, like other believers in the colonial enterprise, espoused virtue in creating employment for the “benefit” of the “native” population. Hence women on South Asian tea plantations became allegories of “good” labour.

Conclusion: The Changing Face of Tea

Despite the centrality of the youthful female figure in tea photographs, early British documents concerning tea manufacture reveal anxiety around how the tea worker should be represented. Report upon the Present Condition and Future of Tea Cultivation in the North-West Provinces and in the Punjab (1860), a pamphlet published by the India Home Department in Calcutta, documents the methods of tea production in Canton. Fragmentation of labourers’ bodies is notable in its illustrations. One page, for instance, is topped by two disembodied pairs of hands that work tea leaves on a woven tabletop. The bodies throughout the pamphlet are not racialized or sexualized, and the close-up of the disembodied hands is similarly nondescript. There are no indications of skin tone, nor are there symbols of gender, age, or ethnicity present in the form of jewelry, clothing, or hairstyle.[48] The figures illustrating the report embody a period of transition from the East Asian to South Asian body, prior to the realization of the iconic image of the South Asian women tea plucker.

Tea has a long history in European visual culture. Scholars have most often focused on images that depict the genteel consumption of the beverage, considering the realm of leisure rather than labour.[49] This has led to a belief that as tea became “more domestic” and “respectable” in the mid-eighteenth century, its “exotic” origins were obscured.[50] However, well into the nineteenth century tea production in China was recorded through a variety of mediums and circulated throughout Britain, familiarizing consumers with the beverages’ Eastern origins. From popular series of Canton company paintings depicting the stages of making tea, to caricatures of Chinese men in packaging and advertisements, the foreign source of tea was present in visual culture even as the commodity grew in popularity.[51] Examination of British depictions of Chinese tea manufacture reveals a persistent, and increasing, emphasis on the body of the worker—a focus that was later carried over to representations of the British trade in South Asia and epitomized by Plucking the leaf.

Photographs made by John Thomson (1837-1921)—one of the first photographers to document China in his Illustrations of China and Its People (1873-1874)—served as the basis for the six woodcuts that illustrate the book Tea: Its History and Mystery (1878), which presented the Chinese origins of tea through the lens of a British tea company, Horniman’s.[52] Thomson included several photographs of tea cultivation and manufacture in his four-volume Illustrations, and Tea’s illustrator clearly relied on them, though Thomson went uncredited.

Figure 6: John Thomson, “Plate XXVI,” Illustrations of China and its people. A series of two hundred photographs, with letterpress descriptive of the places and people represented, Vol. II, London, S. Low, Marston, Low, and Searle, 1873-74. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale (1977 Folio 24).Figure 6: John Thomson, “Plate XXVI,” Illustrations of China and its people. A series of two hundred photographs, with letterpress descriptive of the places and people represented, Vol. II, London, S. Low, Marston, Low, and Searle, 1873-74. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale (1977 Folio 24).
Figure 7: Artist unknown, “Gathering the Spring Crop,” Tea: Its History and Mystery, London, Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1878. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (91-B14823).Figure 7: Artist unknown, “Gathering the Spring Crop,” Tea: Its History and Mystery, London, Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1878. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (91-B14823).

Thomson’s “Tea Plant,” for instance, was the model for Tea’s “Gathering the Spring Crop” (Figures 6-7). In the engraving, the landscape is dominated by rows of tea bushes that fill the bottom half of the composition and extend to the doorstep of a modest building with a Chinese-style curved roof. The male harvesters dispersed throughout the foreground are too small to have individualized features, but their costumes are distinctly Chinese. They carry baskets and pluck the leaves, in the caption’s telling, “with great care,” as not more than one leaf is selected from each stalk.[53] The fact that Tea was sponsored by a British commercial company surely had an impact; Horniman’s contemporaneous newspaper advertisements emphasized that their tea was made from only the first and finest crop, gathered in early Spring.[54] “Gathering the Spring Crop” and its caption place more emphasis on these particulars than Thomson’s photographs.

As draughtsmen and engravers translated Thomson’s images into wood block prints, emphasis was added to the workers present in the scenes. Comparing “Gathering the Spring Crop” to Thomson’s pictures reveals that the setting is unaltered: the architecture, tree-lined background, distant mountain, and rows of tea bushes, are identical. Thomson’s photograph, however, contains only a single worker: a man stands in the center of the frame carrying a basket. Four years later, the printed version for Horniman’s depicts the same figure flanked by five additional men. Looking again to the layout of Plate XXIV, it appears that Thomson’s two scenes of cultivation have been combined. The tea plucker from the photograph on the top left of the plate is inserted, and repeated, across “Gathering the Spring Crop.” Furthermore, the added figures are shown with a curious alteration to their clothing. In both pictures they wear a hat with an upturned brim. However, the print features a knob at the center that indicates elite rank. This is far from a realistic depiction of agricultural labourers. Instead, it is a sartorial embellishment that marks the costume as indisputably “Chinese” for a British viewing audience. The remaining engravings offer a similar amalgamation of details from Thomson’s many photographic images. What appears to matter most to the illustrators and author of Tea: Its History and Mystery is to show Chinese manufacture in a manner British audiences had come to expect: stereotypically and emphatically “Chinese.”[55]

In scenes of tea production, figures at work have a long history of being employed as means of advertising a superior product—emphasizing the freshness of the tea by “gathering the Spring crop” or “two leaves and a bud.” The 1860 Report upon the Present Condition and Future of Tea Cultivation, made before the Indian body took over as the labour of choice for British tea production in the 1880s, marks a process of movement away from the Chinese labouring body towards Plucking the leaf. It is the first step in a distancing that comes into full effect in the anti-Chinese tea propaganda that grew alongside the British industry. Thus, in British visual culture, the promotion of tea is transferred from Chinese to Indian, and from male to female, bodies. The later images reveal changes in skin tone, clothing, and techniques of production as the British adapted Eastern practices to their own, fully controlled manufacture. Photographs like Plucking the leaf were part of an evolving portrayal of tea production, as well as a much longer history of popular scenes of Asian workers. The romanticized tea plucker, represented by real-life women, about whom we know little, holds imaginative symbolism as an important colonial construct in narratives surrounding lucrative agricultural industries in South Asia.

Leila Anne Harris, PhD is the Edith Gowin Curatorial Fellow in Photography at the Morgan Library & Museum. She completed her doctorate in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center in 2020. Her dissertation, Labor and the Picturesque: Photography, Propaganda, and the Tea Trade in Colonial India and Sri Lanka, 1880-1914, examines photographs of British-owned tea plantations and considers how the images advertised the merits of British-grown tea through a romanticization of colonial labor and a celebration of industry in South Asia. Her research has been recognized with support from the Social Sciences Research Council, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, and the Yale Center for British Art.


    1. Bourne & Shepherd, a commercial photography firm working in India, produced remarkably similar photographs during the same years that W.L.H. Skeen & Company photographed tea plantations in Sri Lanka.return to text

    2. My study is in dialogue with histories of photography that engage colonial representation and postcolonial theory. During the early 2000s this scholarship surged in respect to South Asia, and photographic practices in colonial Sri Lanka were explored for the first time. For an excellent summary of the state of research, see: Sophie Gordon, “Uncovering India: Studies of Nineteenth-Century Indian Photography,” History of Photography 28, no. 2 (2004): 180-190.return to text

    3. Lu Yü’s text, also known as Ch’a Ching, was the first written account (ca. 760) offering insight into the process of the beverage’s manufacture. Yü wrote that female tea harvesters abstained from eating fish and certain kinds of meat so that their breath might not affect the bouquet of leaves. Lu Yü, The Classic of Tea. Cited in Piya Chatterjee, A Time for Tea: Women, Labor, and Post/Colonial Politics on an Indian Plantation (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2009), 26. return to text

    4. See: Piya Chatterjee, A Time for Tea: Women, Labor, and Post/Colonial Politics on an Indian Plantation (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2009) and Jayeeta Sharma, Empire's Garden: Assam and the Making of India (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).return to text

    5. Thematic studies include Maria Antonella Pelizzari’s Traces of India: Photography, Architecture, and the Politics of Representation, 1850-1900 (2003), which contributed to the revision of the history of nineteenth-century photography in India by bringing postcolonial voices to bear on the material culture of the Empire. In The Coming of Photography in India (2008), anthropologist Christopher Pinney investigates the impact of colonial photography on indigenous populations in India. He considers a wide range of photographs, from police documents to portrait studios. While focusing on a late-nineteenth-century dispute around images of indigo workers, Pinney addressed broader debates on working conditions. His writing inspires my larger dissertation project, a study of representations of labour in photographs of tea plantations in the British Empire. See: Maria Antonella Pelizzari, Traces of India: Photography, Architecture, and the Politics of Representation, 1850-1900 (Montréal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2003) and Christopher Pinney, The Coming of Photography in India (London: British Library, 2008).return to text

    6. Anandi Ramamurthy, Imperial Persuaders: Images of Africa and Asia in British Advertising (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), 124.return to text

    7. Chatterjee, A Time for Tea, 8.return to text

    8. Chatterjee refers to such combinations of image and text as “the packaged image of women’s labor,” which she calls an embodiment of the picturesque. See: Chatterjee, A Time for Tea, 8-47.return to text

    9. The British-run tea industry was dependent upon indentured labour. Bonded labour is a form of labour in which a person is forced to repay a debt by working for low or no wages, with the money being used to pay off the debt. Historian E. M. Collingham writes that indentured labour was also critical to the survival of Britain's colonial sugar (and later, fruit) plantations elsewhere in the Empire. See: E.M. Collingham, The Taste of Empire: How Britain's Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 207-225. return to text

    10. E.M. Collingham, The Taste of Empire: How Britain's Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 208-209.return to text

    11. Eleanor M. Hight and Gary D. Sampson, Colonialist Photography: Imag(in)ing Race and Place (London: Routledge 2004), 4.return to text

    12. Later insight into the lives of tea plantation workers comes in many forms, including the novel Two Leaves and A Bud (1937) by Mulk Raj Anand and the ethnographic study Tea and Solidarity (2019) by Cultural Anthropologist Mythri Jegathesan. See: Mulk Raj Anand, Two Leaves and a Bud (London: Lawrence & Wishart,1937) and Mythri Jegathesan, Tea and Solidarity: Tamil Women and Work in Postwar Sri Lanka (University of Washington Press, 2019).return to text

    13. Chatterjee, A Time for Tea, 2-3.return to text

    14. Chatterjee, 4.return to text

    15. Anna Arabindan-Kesson, “Picturing South Asians in Victorian Jamaica,” in Victorian Jamaica, ed. Tim Barringer and Wayne Modest (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 395-412.return to text

    16. Arabindan-Kesson, 404.return to text

    17. According to Arabindan-Kesson, South Asian men, not women, are photographed in plantation landscapes. 409.return to text

    18. Locals and missionaries publicly critiqued the system of indentured labour. See: Krista Thompson, An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 79-81.return to text

    19. Thompson, An Eye for the Tropics, 81.return to text

    20. The Camerons owned plantations, most often referenced as coffee estates, which also produced rubber and tea following a blight that destroyed most of the coffee crop in the country.return to text

    21. Author Virginia Woolf, Cameron’s great-niece, published a selection of her photographs titled Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women in 1926. The phrase is commonly used to describe her well-known sitters.return to text

    22. Jeff Rosen, Julia Margaret Cameron's ‘fancy subjects’: Photographic Allegories of Victorian Identity and Empire (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017).return to text

    23. For more on Cameron’s ancestry, including her maternal-grandmother, a high-caste Bengali woman, see: Victoria C. Olsen, From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography (New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 12-14.return to text

    24. A photograph entitled Cameron’s Land. Dimbula was stocked by a commercial studio and available for purchase for tourists visiting the area. A print of the image can be found today in the photography collection of the Royal Commonwealth Society at Cambridge University.return to text

    25. This photograph is held in the Royal Photographic Society Collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum (accession number: RPS.1279-2017). See: Julian Cox and Colin Ford, Julia Margaret Cameron: The Complete Photographs (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2003), Cat. no. 271, p. 210.return to text

    26. It was not uncommon for Cameron to leave prints untitled during her prolific career, which can be seen when turning the pages of the 2003 catalogue raisonné. See: Julian Cox and Colin Ford, Julia Margaret Cameron: The Complete Photographs (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2003).return to text

    27. In another instance, a photograph of two women holding pots was captioned, by an unknown hand, “Tamil Cooly women.” The photograph was compiled in an album alongside photographs by W.L.H. Skeen & Company. See: Cox, Julia Margaret Cameron: The Complete Photographs, 493.return to text

    28. Cox and Ford, Julia Margaret Cameron, 484.return to text

    29. Olsen, From Life, 256.return to text

    30. Olsen, From Life, 256.return to text

    31. Unpublished letter from Julia Margaret Cameron to William Gregory, November 26, 1877, Gregory Family Papers. Emory University. Quoted in Olsen, From Life, 255.return to text

    32. Chatterjee, A Time for Tea, 64.return to text

    33. Olsen, From Life, 253.return to text

    34. Robin Kelsey, “Julia Margaret Cameron Transfigures the Glitch,” in Photography and the Art of Chance (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015), 70.return to text

    35. Kelsey, “Julia Margaret Cameron Transfigures the Glitch,” 96-97.return to text

    36. Kelsey, “Julia Margaret Cameron Transfigures the Glitch” 96-97.return to text

    37. Elizabeth Edwards, Anthropology and Photography: 1860-1920 (New Haven; London: Yale University Press in association with the Royal Anthropological Institute, 1997), 5.return to text

    38. The print is also held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it is titled Ceylonese Woman. The catalog raisonné entry describes the figure as an estate “coolie.” This caption offers new avenue of discussion for this photography, which Rosen describes as a “native Madonna.” See: Rosen, Julia Margaret Cameron's 'fancy subjects,’ 274.return to text

    39. Rosen also discusses the North portraits as “unsuccessful.” Cameron does not appear to have left much of a written record concerning her own thoughts about the images, so the value judgements are the authors—perhaps based on the fact that Cameron did not seek to publish (or even title) the pictures. But at the same time, it seems pertinent to point out that it is just as likely Cameron was pleased with the images. See: Rosen, Julia Margaret Cameron's 'fancy subjects,’ 289.return to text

    40. Olsen, From Life, 255.return to text

    41. Olsen, 255.return to text

    42. Marie Czach, “Some Thoughts on Cameron’s Ceylonese Photographs,” Afterimage, 1 (1973): 2.return to text

    43. “Young Ceylonese woman plantation worker, c 1875-1878,” Science and Society Picture Library Prints, accessed September 27, 2021, to text

    44. Phyllis Rose, “Milkmaid Madonnas: An Appreciation of Cameron’s Portraits of Women,” in Julia Margaret Cameron’s Women, ed. Sylvia Wolf (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1998), 13.return to text

    45. Marianne North tells of a boy who was hired as gardener, despite his lack of experience, because Cameron thought he had a “superb” back. See: Cox and Ford, Julia Margaret Cameron, 484.return to text

    46. Later H.M. King George V and H.M. Queen Maryreturn to text

    47. James Webb, Tropical Pioneers: Human Agency and Ecological Change in the Highlands of Sri Lanka, 1800-1900 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2002), 137.return to text

    48. India Home Department, Report upon the Present Condition and Future of Tea Cultivation in the North-West Provinces and in the Punjab (Calcutta: F.F. Wyman, Home Secretariat, 1860), 78.return to text

    49. For more information on scholarship that considers gendered depictions of tea, see: Romita Ray, "Storm in a Teacup? Visualising Tea Consumption in the British Empire," in Art and the British Empire, ed. Tim Barringer, Geoff Quilley, and Douglas Fordham (Manchester: Manchester University Press. 2007), 205-222.return to text

    50. John E. Wills Jr., “Teapots, Opium Pipes, Guns: From the Canton Trade to the Opium War, 1700-1842” in Steeped in History: The Art of Tea, ed. Beatrice Hohenegger and Terese Tse Bartholomew (Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2009), 192.return to text

    51. Beginning in the eighteenth century, Chinese artists made sets of paintings depicting tea production methods and processes. Produced for the foreign market, they were known as Canton Company paintings. These series, like the report described above, represent discrete stages of tea production and were produced by “native” artists for Western patrons in a style that is neither entirely Chinese nor European. A similar series was included in the popular exhibition Ten Thousand Chinese Things, which went on view near London’s Hyde Park in 1843 and remained there for several years. See: Catherine Pagani, “Chinese Material Culture and British Perceptions of China in the Mid-Nineteenth Century” in Colonialism and the Object: Empire, Imperial Culture and the Museum, ed. Timothy Barringer and Tom Flynn (London: Routledge, 1998), 34-36.return to text

    52. Published in London, the slim book was written by an English author Samuel Phillips Day and featured a forward (printed in both English and Chinese) by Lo Fong Loh, then the Secretary to the Chinese Educational Mission in Europe. See: Samuel Phillips Day, Tea: Its Mystery and History...With a Preface in Chinese and English by Lo Fong Loh...Illustrated (London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1878).return to text

    53. The image caption reads: “Gathering the Spring Crop. - The leaves are plucked with great care, not more than one being plucked from the stalk at a time; notwithstanding this, an expert can gather 10 to 13 lbs. per day.” return to text

    54. Cuttings of Horniman tea newspaper adverts are in the collection of the London Metropolitan Archive.return to text

    55. In addition, a portrait of Lo Fong Loh, the only photographic print in the book, faces the title page. The inclusion of Loh’s portrait, in combination with the extra addition of his text in foreign script, works to instill a sense of authenticity; Loh’s endorsement of Horniman’s tea is heightened because of his Chinese nationality.return to text