Collecting vintage china is as addictive as baking. Put the two habits together and you get afternoon tea, the heady combination of cake and fine china.
Afternoon tea is a nostalgic ritual that works best with vintage china, preferably mismatched. Angel Strawbridge (nee Adoree), star of Channel 4’s Escape to the Chateau and author of several books on vintage tea parties, is the poster girl of the trend.
Closer to home, trendly outlets like the Cake Café in Dublin and Strandfield in Dundalk have shown us how to put together a look based on a mongrel assortment of vintage cups and saucers.
Like rehoming unwanted dogs, there’s an ethical dimension to using vintage china. “I really think we all need to be talking about this a bit more in terms of sustainability and buying things that already exist,” says Chantal Fortune, an antique dealer and a collector of vintage china.
“There are so many amazing teapots and jugs, cups and plates and saucers that are already on the planet.” Many of these were designed as part of a matching set which is no longer complete. For former generations an incomplete tea set was an anathema, but most sets are eventually diminished by breakages. Often, they end up in boxed lots in auction houses where they sell for relatively low prices.
“I’d look in house clearance auctions around the country,” Fortune says. “If you’re lucky you find a collection that someone else has built up.”
Her local auction is Mullen’s Laurel Park in Bray where the current Classic and Contemporary Interiors Sale includes an impressive 88-piece Mason’s Ironstone china dinner, tea and coffee service in a fruit basket pattern (Lot 337: est. €200 to €400) but also several lots of mismatching china with estimates from €50 to €100.
Maggie Brady of Pearl Redesigns is a vintage and upcycling enthusiast based near Newry, County Down. Her local auction house is Scarva Auctions. “You’ll find boxed lots with bits of this and that with plenty of buyers travelling up from the South and the wee women from the markets who buy the china at auction to sell it on.”
As an interior designer, Brady has a few tips on choosing mismatched china. “You’d want them all to have the same fineness. Afternoon tea has a delicacy to it.” Items that come from the same period, even if they have different patterns, will sit together better than genuine antiques combined with retro versions of the same pattern. And don’t mix willow pattern with Old Country Rose. “That just wouldn’t look right.”
Charity shops and car boot sales are another useful source of stray bits of china. Chantal Fortune remembers discovering a pair of blue and white Victorian flow jugs in a car boot sale in Wexford. “I think I paid a tenner for the pair,” she says.
Flow, she explains, is a type of transfer ware where the pattern bleeds into the ceramic and the glaze, creating a magically blurred effect. “They’re an elegant pear-shape, about 45 cm high, and they look amazing filled with wild flowers. I use them as the centrepiece on the table, combined with other blue and white china.”
She’s a big fan of vintage Arklow pottery. “I’ve this set of willow pattern plates made in Arklow in the 1950s. They’re made as side plates with a lovely gold rim and they’re a really useful size – somewhere between a side plate and a dinner plate. They live on the dresser and we use them. They go in the dishwasher too.”
One of the glorious things about mismatching china is that if you break a piece, however you may mourn the individual item, it’s not the same tragedy as when you smash an irreplaceable part of a set. Fortune’s other tip for acquiring vintage china is to shop your grandmother’s cupboard. Most of the older generation have some china.
Ask them about the china in the “good cabinet”. If you show an appreciation, they may be willing to pass it on.
“I asked my grandmother about her Victorian tea cups – there is a set of three with their saucers – and she told me that they used to live in a japanned cabinet. One day, an antique dealer came to the house and took the cabinet away. He carried it out on his back. My grandmother had eleven children and she told them that the cabinet was going for restoration, but she was actually selling it. I think about that story every time I use the cups.”
See fortunesantiques.com, pearlredesigns.com, scarvaauctions.com and mullenslaurelpark.com