It’s podcast day today and it’s a good’un. Useful too. Sophie and I discuss garden furniture and how the key to getting it right is to take in the indoors out – sofas and lamps rather than deck chairs that collapse on you. Think about creating an outdoor sitting room and you’re on the right lines. It needs to be as comfortable so it outside as it is to remain indoors basically. Also when it comes to choosing the furniture don’t default to that grey boxy furniture if that’s not your interior style. It’s still your space even if it doesn’t have walls and ceilings.

Red dining chairs, large wooden table in walled garden. Merchant & Found table with 1950s vintage original French Olix cafe chairs £675 for six
Red dining chairs, large wooden table in walled garden. Merchant & Found table with 1950s vintage original French Olix cafe chairs £675 for six

My garden furniture is grey as my house was when I bought it.  I can’t justify changing it but am contemplating recovering the cushions in something brighter and jollier to make the whole thing a little more uplifting. For more ideas you can listen here.

Next we discuss the current trend for what is now called tablescaping (we used to call it laying the table) but it’s not just about that. Buying vintage china at auction is massive and you can still pick up great bargains. The Victorians regularly catered for four courses for 12 people so you can get huge sets for not much money.

Masons imari via cheffins
Masons imari via cheffins

Patterned tableware fell out of fashion in the 90s when it was all about white plate and big wooden serving boards but it’s on its way back now and the joy this time round is that it doesn’t have to match so you can build up a collection gradually.

We spoke to Cheffins auction house who told us that the old Willow Pattern is still very affordable and if you keep an eye out you can still find Constance Spry whose scallop shaped vases and jugs are being heavily copied by the high street just now.

Other names to look out for include Masons Imari, Spode and Wedgwood. Keep an eye on Etsy as that’s often a good source for vintage china. Brett Tryner, a director in the fine arts department at Cheffins offers the following advice if you’re nervous about auctions.

mason imari jug for sale on ebay
mason imari jug for sale on ebay

If you’re there in person and buying a big box you should be allowed to take out the pieces and inspect them. If you can’t get there then ask for a condition report. Check for maker’s stamps on the bottom of each piece.

Brett says the key thing if you’re a first timer is not to be intimidated. It’s not all about selling Old Masters for millions of dollars. There are monthly sales of stuff which have come from ordinary houses like your Granny or your neighbour where things just need to find new homes and aren’t necessarily high value.

Accidental bidding isn’t really a thing. The auctioneers are trained to spot the difference between someone scratching their nose and wanting to buy something.

possible constance spry vase for sale on ebay
possible constance spry vase for sale on ebay

Auctions move fast so turn up early – you will need to register and get a bidding number before you can take part. This applies to online as well as in real life. And if you are attending in real life then allow time to inspect the items you are interested – don’t forget to measure if it’s furniture.

You will have heard this before but don’t forget it – set yourself a top limit. The adrenaline can kick in and you can get carried away and spend more than you wanted to.

Finally have fun. There are often lots of hidden gems at local auctions and many will have a tea room so make a day of it and enjoy it. Buying this way means you will get something with history and character as well as something that no-one else has.

Just remember if you’re buying vintage china that it probably can’t go in the dishwasher.


With huge thanks as ever to our series sponsors Harlequin

Tags : buying at auctionCheffins auction houseoutdoor furniturepatterned tablewarethe great indoorsthe great indoors podcast
Kate Watson-Smyth

The author Kate Watson-Smyth

I’m a journalist who writes about interiors mainly for The Financial Times but I have also written regularly for The Independent and The Daily Mail. My house has been in Living Etc, HeartHome and featured in The Wall Street Journal & Corriere della Sera. I also run an interior styling consultancy Mad About Your House. Welcome to my Mad House.


  1. To buy items that are in an auction sale you need not be there in person. Once you have noted what you would like to bid for you can contact the auction house beforehand by email saying you’d like to bid by telephone, giving them all your details and listing the items you want to bid for. They contact you by phone just before your listed item comes under the hammer.
    The only auction house to avoid, in my upsetting experience, is Mallams Abingdon. Despite giving them two phone numbers they let me down and did not contact me in time. A typing error on their part resulted in my loosing the item I wanted so badly.

  2. I have attended auctions for years, two more pointers. 1) go to an auction and just observe for the first time with no intent of buying, you can see how it works without the pressure of having your eye on something. 2) some auctions add a buyers premium, a percentage of the price you bid on top of your winning bid, factor that into your top price your are willing to pay.

  3. Good advice re old china crockery. Been using my late in-laws’ vintage 90-piece Noritake ‘Whitebrook’ for high days and holidays for 25 years, and wash it in the dishwasher to no ill effect. It’s a pretty white and grey pattern with silver rims – makes an elegant Christmas table. I’d love more vintage china but storage….

  4. You can see how granny’s vintage china stands up to the dishwasher by leaving a unmatched cup or saucer in the machine for a month of washings. Compare that to a dish that’s been sitting in a closet, unused for decades. Decide if you care enough about any difference to squirrel it away again.

    I’ve used my great-grandmother’s 1910 Noritaki wedding china every day for thirty years. The gold rims have dulled slightly because of the dishwasher. I don’t mind. Better to enjoy the daily pleasure of a pretty table than hoard a box of unloved stuff in a cupboard.

    1. I agree! I have a set of 12 crystal cut wine glasses we received as a present on our wedding day some 24 years ago. They are beautiful but stowed away in the loft – I am determined to get them out and start using them as they’ve never really seen the light of day!

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