“No afternoon tea party is complete without a gorgeous teapot... I pounced on this divine silver-plated teapot in Venice and lugged it around for three months, much to my husband’s dismay...”
And so begins Alexandra Nea Graham’s personal journey into the world of afternoon tea. With her exquisite drawings, she captures a world that revisits the old tradition of taking the time over simple pleasures: cooking, brewing tea and sitting down to have a chat and enjoy homemade food with friends and family.
It’s also a world that encapsulates fashion designer Al’s lifelong passions: collecting, baking and drawing. And it’s a private world she has recently begun to share through her blog, The Art of Afternoon Tea.
So what came first? ‘I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember and I started collecting china teacups when I was around 13’, Al tells me while pouring us tea in the sun-filled kitchen of the 1890s worker’s cottage she shares with her husband, Jim, in Sydney’s inner west.
‘Mum is a great cook and was always getting my sister and I to help her in the kitchen when we were very young. I don’t know why but I’ve always loved the baking side of cooking.’
As she slices the decadent looking raspberry and hazelnut cake, she continues, ‘I think it appeals to me because it’s so visually attractive.’
Holding a Mother-of-Pearl handled fork in one hand and a vintage, hand embroidered napkin in my other, I’m inclined to agree with her. The whole table is so visually attractive it deserves to be captured before our plates become filled with crumbs, cups tea-stained and saucers splattered with milk.
Thankfully, Al has already captured 62 such vignettes and still has many more recipes to bake, and china, cake stands, cutlery and napery to draw. Each week she posts a drawing, writes notes on the collectables, the origin of the recipe as well as the recipe in full.
Aside from her love of drawing, she has another incentive to keep her project going; ‘There is a ban on me adding to my teacup collection until I have drawn them all’, she laughs as we look at the dresser with its shelves of stacked teacups, plates, vintage tins and cut glass cake stands and silverware.
Al can’t remember how the idea for the blog came about, ‘About three years ago I was looking for a reason to draw. While I love fashion design, art is my other main passion and I had been thinking about ways to move towards an illustration career. One day I made a cake, pulled it out of the oven and decided to draw it. It worked out well and I thought I should keep doing it. Then I drew a stack of teacups and it went from there.’
Generally, Al will bake on a Saturday and set up the scene to draw on the Sunday. ‘I draw here,’ she says, pointing to the kitchen table we are sitting at, ‘because the light is so good.’
The illustrations are drawn with mix media; the main material used being coloured pencils and other medias often used are the pantone markers (as traditionally used in fashion illustrations) and graphite pencils.
Al will complete the picture in one sitting. ‘It takes about eight or nine hours to draw a full afternoon tea scene. Once I’m involved in drawing I don’t want to be doing anything else until I’ve finished.’
Realising she could have the makings of a visually different cookbook, she sent word out to friends and family asking for any afternoon tea recipes, particularly any involving family traditions. The response she got was ‘fantastic’.
Using the blog as a showcase for her work has given her a reason to draw and without purposefully setting out to do so, she has managed to create a project that ‘has all just come together. It’s a combination of all my loves through the years coming through really nicely.’
A culmination of her life experience so far too: five years ago, Al and Jim moved to London and spent two years living, working and travelling around. Weekends were filled with trawling through markets, hunting out antique stores and unearthing more pieces for her collections.
If forced to pick a favourite cup and saucer, it would be a Shelley one her husband gave her, ‘Jim found it in a shop I always visited. Bizarrely I had already seen it, loved it but not told him about it and then on my birthday I discovered he’d found it anyway.’
Having bought their house three years ago, it’s only since moving her 'drawing things’ from her childhood home and creating artwork here that this house has really felt like home. It also helps having all her collections around, ‘Everything I’ve collected overseas was bought with the intention it would have its place. I always knew that one day we would have our own home and they would have their own place on my dresser in my own kitchen.’
'Every piece we have here has a story attached to it. Every object was loved and wanted and has helped create our home. I can look around and remember that I lugged that teapot around in a suitcase or I found those cups at a flea market in Paris.’
Al points to the old meatsafe in the kitchen now home to her pantry, ‘I like remembering that we bought this while on a trip to Adelaide for a friend’s engagement party and we organised for it to be brought back to Sydney on the back of a truck.’
Our afternoon tea is nearly finished when she picks up the old lace placement underneath the cut glass vase of roses, ‘I like the story of old things and the intricate nature of them. Look at this piece of lace. Someone spent a long time hand-sewing this and all these years later I appreciate all the work that has gone into it.’
This small and delicate piece of material encapsulates Al’s feelings about home and life perfectly; ‘I don’t like cutting corners with anything, I like to take the time and maybe ultimately that is what appeals to me.’
To see more of Al’s work, visit The Art of Afternoon Tea here.
Artwork ©Alexandra Nea
Photography ©Sophie Leece