To Take Tea: Wolf Suschitzky’s “Lyons Corner House”

A writer selects one image from our current exhibitions and responds to it. For our Winter 2016 programme, we have invited six students on the MA Critical Writing in Art and Design course at the Royal College of Art, London. Here, Thea Smith selects an image from Wolf Suschitzky’s exhibition London, currently on view in our Print Sales Gallery.

Wolf Suschitzky, Lyon's Corner House, 1941. Image courtesy The Photographers' Gallery

Wolf Suschitzky, Lyons Corner House, London 1941.

When he shook off his overcoat and slung it onto the back of the rattan chair he had not expected to have the ink-black smudge of his jacket reflected back at him in the silver sugar pot, long used and polished every evening with a weary cloth. Nor in the black abyss of his companion’s eyes, thick as Turkish coffee with the words heard by accident over the phone.

To take tea is to take time and space to air grievances, to hang them up in the air as though hanging up a coat to dry. To take tea, which is specified on the menu at Lyons Corner House as the Best in the World, freshly made. On the corner of the Charing Cross road, what a flurry of customers pass through its glass doors, taking a seat around the circular tables, taking tea and a bite to eat. A constantly revolving teacup ride, a swirling waltz of pauses. The waitresses nip and dart around, nipping to and fro, nipping into the kitchen to pick up doorstopper sandwiches and nipping around the tables to deposit delights from their swiftly-carried trays. Nippies, they’re called.

Her hand could be gathering her scarf as her veil floats around her eyes like a cigarette smoke halo. Yes, the gesture could be a gathering, a tender gathering of the weight of emotion that hangs thickly in the air between them like an overstuffed cloud ready to pour. Gathering it into her palm she feels the searing pressure of her fingernails through the thin material to temper the tension. She gathers her lariat, the whisper-thin thread looped around their conversation. Her arched eyebrow speaks volumes. His hands come to rest glumly in his lap for fear of a slight nervous tremor. Even a small tremble will be intensified by the rattle of a china teacup against its saucer—brutally cacophonous. Inelegance just won’t do.

But, to come quite unexpectedly upon a violent gesture, the smashing of her fist into her palm—this universal gesture of intimidation, thumb tucked inside those trenchant fingers—is to witness a fleeting upheaval of the reserved Englishness of this tearoom. She folded up the knowledge of a secret to be unveiled later as she buckled the thin black leather around her wrist that morning—all the day watching the hands tick around in anticipation, hours until. To invite him to take tea under false pretences, to devastatingly unfurl silent fury. The echo of the words heard unexpectedly on the telephone bounce and rattle in between them, bruited about, slip-sliding into their teacups like lahar after an eruption.

To take tea, under false pretences, and be framed by this mirror and a stone pillar, in the four o’clock light that is beginning to fail, and the lamps have begun to prop up the glow with their halations, and the Nippies are measuring out China Tea carefully with deeply concave spoons, brushing off the excess to flatten the measure with a flick. Five minutes it takes. Five minutes and 3 1/2 pence per pot per person. Five minutes to brew, and then pour it into the bone-china tea cups with the floral décolletage, and set the cups to the left.

His shoulders slump towards the cups and, cigarette downcast from his lower lip his eyes close in a crestfallen blink that lasts just a little longer than an instant. His blink is a melancholy moment as a thrust of air escapes his nose. Inaudible in the clatter and conversation around him it makes a short and doleful wheeze as his diaphragm bears the concertinaing weight of his shoulders that have just crumbled above it. The air is pushed out and a particle of ash is dislodged from the tip of his cigarette, becoming imperceptible against the grain of the photograph as it is preserved forever in mid-air.

To take tea is a dance; a slow, stately dance for two, revolving round and round. Ineffable music drags in others similarly locked in silent battle, each one the centre of their own vortex. The severely-hatted woman to the right, her solid chin held to fix her fierce gaze in front, her partner with lowered eyes. The dance swings around the pillar just as the hansom cabs swing around Piccadilly Circus and just as the Nippies’ trays swing around the cafe on extended fingertips, collecting teacups drained to the dregs but heavy with secrets unveiled.

Thea Smith is a writer and editor based in London and co-edits SALT. magazine. @SALTeditorial

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