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  • Cafafina Interview Posted on 22 April 2014


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    Teatime with Helen

    Posted by Casafina
    We took time out of our busy Casafina schedule to have tea with antique expert, tea fanatic and wonderful hostess Helen Smith – and pup Tilly -and grilled her about her speciality (whilst having a cuppa and biccie or two!)


    1.    Have you always been a tea enthusiast? When did you found the Eco Antique Teacup Candles Company?

    Yes, always, I love tea. But what fascinates me is the parallel story of the development of tea drinking in the UK and also the development of English porcelain which go hand in hand – it’s an amazing story.

    My background is in antiques, the first antique I ever owned was when I was 11, I persuaded my mum to buy me this little antique chair for my 12th birthday and from then I guess the path just continued! I did a BA in History and Art History and an MA in Museology thinking I’d work in museums. My external examiner when I was doing my MA was Clive Wainwright, who was head of furniture at the V&A; a legendary man who set me on the path to my career, in the specialist antiques trade, selling to museums rather than working in them!

    I worked for Haslam and Whiteway on Kensington Church Street for 7 years who are specialist dealers in 19th century British design and the UK’s leading dealers in their field. In the mean-time as a hobby with some girlfriends we started to experiment with different crafts – getting back to basics, using our hands again and began making candles. The effect was stunning, we did our first charity sale in December 2009 and we sold every single thing. I kept doing my other work, but having fun with small shows and markets at the weekends. The concept behind the whole story was 200 years of British tea drinking history. I went full time at the end of 2011 and from 2012 started to expand the story further by selling other tea porcelain and furniture too.

    2.    Tea is an integral part of British Culture and has been for a number of centuries – why do you believe it’s had such staying power?

    When it first arrived tea was a very fashionable; it was incredibly expensive and taxes were high. So it was very much the aristocracy that drank tea, the tea party became a social event. Legend has it that afternoon tea was ‘created’ by Anna Maria who was the seventh Duchess of Bedford. After experiencing a ‘sinking’ feeling around 4pm every afternoon Anna asked her maid to bring her tea and a slice or two of bread and butter to tide her over during the long break between lunch and dinner. She soon found it was the perfect refreshment and asked her friends to join her.

    Low tea is sometimes confused with high tea, but this was actually held amongst the working classes, and consisted of a substantial family evening meal held at a ‘high’ dining table.
    Taxes were eventually relaxed and it swiftly became a national favourite, soon overtaking the consumption of coffee in the coffee houses around the country.  Why do we still love it so much! I just don’t know.  I do know that since Since the 18th century, the UK has topped the list for highest tea consumption, today we get through 165 million cups a day – can you imagine!


    3.Why do you incorporate the “eco-friendly” tagline into your company – is this something you hold close to your heart?

    Very much so. To me, I love porcelain, there’s no way I was ever going to introduce any element that wasn’t ecologically sound. Recycling – the ultimate form of recycling, that’s what antiques are. They are things that are re-used over and over again by continuous generations. The throw-away plastic cups we use today just go into land-fills – instead of this gorgeous teacup I’m drinking from that’s one hundred and fifty years old!


    4. Where and how do you source your products?

    Because of my background in antiques I’ve a lot of good contacts across the country. So every three months I will take a week off and get in the car and drive from Scotland down to Cornwall and I will go and visit all my friends – they know what I like; good British porcelain and furniture including all the good major British potteries.

    Sometimes I get a phone-call that a major house contents is being sold up and I am out the door and in my car like a shot!


    5. What is your favourite era in terms of China design?

    My favourite era in British tea porcelain is the Georgian era. I like the very beginning and to see the evolution of the tea-cup, particularly the 1780 – 1830 period before mass production kicks in. To see the development of the tea-cup from the Chinese tea-bowl is really fascinating.

    The Bute-shape, was the first form of British tea cup, named after the then Prime Minister Lord Bute who insisted “our fingers were too delicate to hold hot porcelain” , hence the handle was added.   The shape of the cup and the handle continues to evolve.  And you had the best painters, artists and ceramists working for the potteries during this period, there were still less than 100 potteries during this era.

    6. Wedgwood, Worcester, Copeland and Garrett, Miles Mason , Minton and Flight Barr & Barr are all early potteries you’ve included in your collection and are all imbibed with British history. Do any in particular stick out to you or have a distinctive or interesting story?

    Every single one! But the god-father was Josiah Spode. He is the man who ultimately cracked the code and developed English porcelain which is bone china. There are 3 essential ingredients; 2 parts bone ash (animal bone), one part china clay and one part china stone. He arguably then went on to invent the willow pattern c1790– which is still being made today – some amazing designers are still using it today and producing incredible modern porcelain in the Stoke potteries right now.

    7.    How does tea feature in your daily life? Do you often throw afternoon tea-parties?

    I love tea, it’s integral to my life. I have tea all the time and drink only from antique porcelain, so I suppose my life’s a tea party really.


    8. Vintage, Second-Hand and antique has been in-vogue for a number of years – do you believe this is due to nostalgia for the past?

    I read an article about three years ago. Interviewing the curator of the very first exhibition on perfume and they said “what’s fashionable at the moment?” and she said “rose and vanilla; all the things that make you feel of home” and it’s always like that when there is a recession. That’s why we look to home, we look to the past, to comforts, to solid things that are reassuring. British porcelain has been around for hundreds of years, it’s reassuring in times of uncertainty.

    Also I think it’s a parallel story to what happened in 19th century Britain, the reaction against industrialisation, it’s the rise of the hand crafted, British made goods. You know where they come from and you know how they’re made.

    9. Do you have a typical customer? If so, can you describe them?

    There is no typical customer and that’s what I love about what I do. Different periods of British porcelain have different customers. My average social-media follower is 17-21 – those are the people who buy my beautiful over-blown vintage, gold-lace chintz, the 1950s. People think the people who buy my porcelain will be the 65+ women but they are the one category who do not generally buy my porcelain as it’s too familiar.

    The people who are younger see something different, see it out of context. In my city markets I sell a lot of good Georgian pieces to gentlemen in their 40s and 50s who drink tea out of them in their board rooms and I love that!

    10. You sell at shows, fairs, markets including Leadenhall Market, supply shops, weddings and even throw parties so people can browse. Which is your favourite/find the most successful?

    What I love is dealing one to one with the customer, I love telling them the story and introducing them to all the aspects of the period. So actually it’s got to be the shows and the markets where I get to meet them on the front line.

    But I adore working with brides, we’ll talk a year or 6 months in advance to feel out what styles/colours they are attracted too, and they’ll realise they like 1940s or 1850s and then we build up this incredible collection for them.


    11. Do you have any tips or tricks to finding real treasures at markets/boot sales/house clearances?

    Just get in there and rummage, look under tables, look in boxes and just buy what you love. No up-ending it and checking the marks. Rubbish! It always makes me giggle when I go to an antique fair and you’ll see a mass produced piece of rubbish for an extraordinary amount of money because it has a recognisable back stamp and then you’ll see an exquisite 200 year old enamelled teacup for pence!  I can’t stand the “collecting by numbers” mentality.

    If you look and use your eye you can look and truly find something beautiful, exquisite and rare.


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