John Coakley Lettsom was Britain’s first literary authority on tea: his 1772 work, The Natural History of the Tea-Tree2, represents the earliest English language attempt at a comprehensive survey of the science and history of what would become the United Kingdom’s national beverage. In my last essay we reviewed the tea literature of Europe leading up to Lettsom’s time. We’re therefore ready to take a closer look at what Lettsom himself wrote, and get a better sense of Europe’s ideas on tea in his time.
I’ve recently been considering the question of identifying the seminal works in tea literature. Every student of tea will quickly learn of Lu Yu’s Classic of Tea 茶經, around 780, and of course the landmark work in the English language, All About Tea by William Ukers in 1935. These are the obvious selections which we will cover at a later date.
In my opinion, an early seminal work worth reviewing would be John Coakley Lettsom’s The Natural History of the Tea-Tree of 1772. 160 years before Ukers does the same thing, Lettsom attempted to digest and summarize all of the tea-related information available at his time, collating botanical, medical, and historical writing into a coherent general survey. Lettsom’s is also the first English work entirely focused upon the subject of tea, granting it a unique place in its history – published prior to the era dominated by the East India Company, it is a relatively apolitical and objective book. It is also significant for its influence, as much of the West’s later understanding of tea was founded upon and shaped by Lettsom’s work, which was widely read, analyzed, and cited for many years.