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A Cup of Tea with Zebedee Helm

A BAFTA-nominated satirist, cartoonist and nougat enthusiast, Zebedee Helm has brought our newest book Time for Tea to life. A grasshopper footman? A biscuit caterpillar? These are just a few of the many illustrations poured into the book's pages. 


We asked Mr Helm about the book, the illustrations and more about his work. He shared with us his process, his Fortnum's favourites and his passion for extra cream on scones.

What did you enjoy about illustrating Time for Tea? And do you have a favourite Time for Tea illustration? 


"Illustrating Time for Tea was pretty much a dream job. I was given almost complete creative freedom. Tea is a subject close to my heart and there was a pandemic raging, so there were no distractions. When I received the call asking me if I would be interested in illustrating the book, I went into my kitchen and counted no fewer than 5 different tins of Fortnum's tea, all of which were in daily use, so I knew I was the right person for the job. It was in the tea leaves.


As far as a favourite illustration goes, it’s hard to say. It was a nice moment when I had the idea for the grasshopper as the footman. A Grasshopper’s natural resemblance to a chap in a Georgian costume is remarkable, and the fact that they have four arms was an extremely convenient device to display more dishes per picture."


Do you have a favourite recipe? 


"I’ve been too busy to try any of the recipes yet, so it would be premature to declare a favourite. I do love cake though, and the pile-of-green-pancakes-matcha cake has caught my eye…"



Do you have a favourite subject or theme to draw?


"I like drawing animals or myself as I can do so without complaint. Drawing actual people is very stressful as everyone I’ve ever drawn has complained that I haven’t made them look as gorgeous as they consider themselves to be. I get quite defensive, then hurt and sulky when they force me to re-draw them for the fifth time. I try and make drawings that capture an atmosphere and of course I love to amuse. Badly drawn things amuse me hugely and it’s a challenge to draw something badly enough to be funny yet still recognisable as what it’s supposed to be."

How important is satire today?


"Very. As a nation we have always been good at laughing at ourselves. Pomposity must be exposed at all opportunities, but satire must be funny. There is nothing more irritating than preachiness dressed up as satire when it’s not even amusing. A good laugh is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. It is getting much harder to make jokes though, as we’ve all become rather sensitive to criticism (see answer above) and terrified of offending anyone. The New Yorker cartoons are generally so cautious these days that you laugh at them rather than with them."



What is your process? Do you draw with an end result in mind, or see where the pencil takes you?


"I normally have an idea. If I gave the pencil free reign it would go to stupid places and probably draw spirals, which it knows I loathe."  



How did you stay inspired during lockdown?


"I found the necessity of paying the mortgage inspiring and as I’ve always worked from home and been pretty anti-social I didn’t notice much of a difference with lockdown. I also moved house in the middle of it all which kept things interesting. Trying to make new friends in a new place when you weren’t allowed to talk to anyone or leave your house was an interesting challenge and I thrive on adversity."



What are your Fortnum’s favourites?


"Marrons glacé, Fortmason blend tea, the musical biscuit tins and the fancy eclairs, I love an éclair, particularly the French style ones that are filled with that clever, cold custard. That’s four, for my fifth choice I’d like to say the Fortnum’s eau de nil colour, which is delectable."



Last, but by no means least: jam or cream first on scones?


"Clotted cream is one of the culinary world’s best inventions and I think it might be unique to these isles. It is also much less harmful on the health than double cream, a fact that is not widely enough known. For a long time, I couldn’t decide if I liked strawberry jam or raspberry jam best on scones, then one year inspiration struck and I made a jam using half raspberries, half strawberries, genius I know. To answer your question my natural inclination is to put the clotted cream on first, like butter, then spoon on the jam then add more cream if you can balance it on top. While I’m here I’d like to say that when you order a cream tea in almost any establishment, they don’t provide you with enough cream and I always have to request another instalment half way through. There was one hotel I used to go to in Gloucestershire where they gave you a cricket ball sized portion of cream, they knew what they were doing. Sorry, you probably only wanted a one-word answer to this question, but it is such an important issue.