Thomas Brindley was a grocer, tea-dealer and seedsman in Uttoxeter during the 1830s. Directories place his business in the High Street, and he supplied the workhouse with basic foodstuffs. For clientele beyond the parish poor, though, he sought to attract people with a taste for the exotic, for luxuries or for high-quality goods. To leave customers in no doubt of his global reach, his bill-heading featured illustrations of both his suppliers, and of his goods being used.
Of particular interest to me are the images of the two men, one a Chinese tea merchant and the second apparently a Scottish customer taking snuff. The Chinese character is depicted in stylised ‘oriental’ clothing but with a pale and narrow face emphasised by his long moustache. His hair is not visible, so the traditional Chinese male queue is missing. He is seated with his arms open in welcome and to display his mercantile practice, gesturing to a ship at sail in the bay behind him. In short, he looks like a British citizen aping a Chinese merchant, and is consequentially a domesticated, unthreatening and placid depiction of otherness. The image of the Scottish man is similarly contradictory, his full Highland dress and bonnet at odds with the sedate practice of inhaling snuff.
Brindley’s vouchers relate to parish payments in the early 1830s, and his bill-head was a product of its time. China was the only country to export tea until 1838, and the first Opium War did not begin until 1839. Therefore British impressions of Chinese people were not yet heavily overlain with negative associations relating to narcotics or military opposition. Instead the western impression of China drew on largely uncritical stereotypes, and tea advertising often used scenes of ports, ships, or palm trees, populated by men or boys in triangular hats and flowing costumes. Perceptions of China probably benefited by association with the popularity of tea as a non-alcoholic beverage.
Similarly the Scottish figure is a sympathetic one; the man sits relaxed with his knees wide apart. The threat of Jacobite rebellion had long faded by the 1830s, and Scottish heritage was being successfully rehabilitated and valorised for the nineteenth century by the novels of Sir Walter Scott.
The imagery used above successfully conveys an impression of bounty and exoticism from near and far, but cannily avoids troubling or unsettling images of the foreign. These two figures are uncontroversially part of an ordered, British world.