Sugar and Spice

For some, the idea of a tea party conjures images of a rather staid affair, with matronly ladies sipping Earl Grey while enjoying a slice of Victoria sponge, but Anastasia Hutton-Summers, the founder of Kent Vintage Tea Parties doesn’t exactly conform to that stereotype. Instead, as she stands at the top of the stairs to her seaside flat, she looks more like a 1940s starlet. Her long platinum blonde hair is gently waved in the style of Veronica Lake and her porcelain complexion subtly enhanced by some deftly applied maquillage. She is wearing a vintage silk blouse and circular skirt, cinched in at the waist, which flares out as she quickly turns back into the kitchen to fulfil her role as hostess, serving coffee in large, brightly coloured mugs.

Within just a few minutes of conversation, it becomes clear that Anastasia has already packed quite a lot into the adult portion of her 28 years. While studying for her first degree in Art and Illustration, she worked first for Vivienne Westwood in the King's Road, London and then at Agent Provocateur. After graduating, she trained as a make-up artist and worked with photographer, Alice Hawkins, before taking a dramatic change of direction and moving away from London out to the Kent coast. Here, she enrolled at Canterbury University to take a second degree in Sociology and Social Policy. The vintage tea party business was meant to be a little sideline to earn money while she was studying, but it quickly took off and Anastasia found herself busy hiring out china and props, not only for all sorts of events, but to magazines and publishers for photoshoots too.

"I started the Kent Vintage Tea Party about two years ago. It really began when I was organising my wedding as I couldn't find what I wanted for my reception. I've always had a thing for nostalgia. I remember watching Some Like it Hot when I was at primary school and I was smitten by the glamour of it all. I started smearing red smarties on my lips so that I would look as if I had scarlet lipstick on. Then from about the age of fifteen I started collecting things, especially china. I've gradually accumulated enough of it to cater for 300 people, as well as all sorts of accessories and props too, so I keep most of it in a studio in Canterbury now. I have two girls who help me, and we do lots of weddings, birthdays, anniversary parties and christenings. We're often asked to style events too, and we're doing a big wedding tomorrow actually, so I've brought some plates here from the studio, so that I can put together some bespoke tiered cake stands. They're brilliant, because I can mix and match the china to suit the bride's colour scheme.

"We do quite a few classic tea parties, including some for the WI, but not everyone uses the china for tea and cake. The tiered cake stands make fabulous centrepieces for tables, and often people put flowers on them, or put tealights in the cups and then of course, we also do 'prohibition parties' where the teapots are full of stronger stuff than tea!"
We're still chatting in the kitchen where Anastasia's love of all things vintage and retro is in strong evidence. The kitchen cupboards have been painted the colour of buttermilk, changed from what Anastasia describes as a "hideous" mahogany brown that she found when she moved in. The walls, too, have been given several coats of pale cream paint to cover what was a rather strident orange. "My mother has a fabulous farmhouse kitchen in Suffolk and I'm so envious really, but I think I'd have to have the floor reinforced to get an Aga in here! I've tried to make it cosy, but I have also added a modern chandelier for a touch of glamour. I know most people have spotlights in their kitchen, but I wanted something a little less plain and functional."

At the far end of the room, an original 1940s sage green enamel box with the word BREAD cut out of the front to provide ventilation and keep its contents fresh, stands on the worksurface and a plate rack on the wall above holds dainty rosebud patterned plates as well as some of Anastasia's favourite Victorian blue and white china. A Cath Kidston green and pink striped apron hangs over a cupboard door next to the refrigerator that is smothered with vintage postcards.
The kitchen gadgets are almost all original classics of industrial design such as Anastasia's treasured KitchenAid food mixer. First manufactured in 1919, the iconic design remains unchanged and just as coveted today. A retro style ivory Bakelite Bush radio stands on the shelves above the kitchen counter and there are more cream and green enamel storage tins as well as a large bar of "Fairy" household soap in its original 1950s packaging. Behind the rather pungent soap bar is a 1947 copy of Hylda M. Lancaster's Laundry Work Principles and Practice - a very detailed manual for the 1940s housewife to follow when she tackled such problems as 'how to gloss a collar'.

Suddenly, my peripheral vision registers something moving at speed across the floor in the hallway. It seems to have been a pinkish-brown blur, but when Anastasia is asked about it, she laughs and explains that it must have been 'Pancake' her baby house rabbit. "He's rather shy of strangers so he may have gone to hide." We tiptoe into the sitting room to avoid frightening him again and find him under the dining table, his long ears flopping down almost to the floor and his nose twitching in alarm.
While Pancake recovers his composure and decides whether I am friend or foe, I focus on the room. It is predominantly white and the sunlight pouring in from the windows facing towards the sea produces an almost phosphorescent glow. Besides the natural light, there are several other sources, including a standard lamp that stands at one end of the dining table with its floral shade at such a rakish angle that it resembles a rather tipsy guest. An Austrian empire-style chandelier found on Ebay hangs from the ceiling in front of the white painted Victorian fireplace and on the mantelpiece, a bevelled edge 1940s mirror reflects yet more light back into the room. On either side of the mirror Anastasia has arranged small groups of vintage lemonade bottles filled with pale yellow and shell pink lisianthus.
More lisianthus in the same pale ice cream colours fill a glass vase that stands on an oval painted coffee table bought from Brocante in Westgate-on-Sea. "Rob and Dawn run the shop and they have some amazing things. They sell to Designers' Guild and all sorts of smart places in London, and I've managed to find some lovely things that were just right for this flat." More books spill over the shelves of a dresser in one alcove, while in the other, a mismatched dresser top and base houses a white flat-screened television and masses of DVDs.

A white linen-covered sofa is set at a right angle to the windows, where a pair of Redouté rose prints with primrose yellow mounts have been hung on the wall. The gentle pastel shades of the pictures are then echoed in the pale green cashmere throw and pink floral cushions that, along with a sheepskin rug, add texture and a sense of comfort. At the other end of the sofa, a painted butler's tray table supports a cut glass lamp with a vintage floral shade.
The lamp's twin stands on a shelf next to the dining table along with a glass bonbon jar full of colourful striped candies and sweets. Mismatched chairs surround the rectangular French refectory table, and in the centre of the linen and lace runner there is a small glass vase of pale pink roses with pistachio green outer petals. On the wall above, Anastasia has grouped together four bevelled mirrors of varying shapes.
By now, Pancake seems to have decided that it's safe to come out from under the table and lollops out of the room on his long back legs, so we follow him again, this time into the study. The alcove wall has been covered in Cabbages & Roses' Hatley wallpaper in charcoal and taupe, and against this stands Anastasia's scrubbed pine and painted desk. Above it hangs a pretty French chandelier and on the wall there is a shell-shaped bevelled mirror bought at Detling Antiques Fair. The desk supports just a few favourite and essential items, including a 1950s-style beige leather Roberts 'Revival' radio, a white Anglepoise lamp, some pens and pencils in an enamel mug and a couple of exotic butterflies in simple black frames. A Lloyd loom bergère with white linen cushions and a small sheepskin rug is used as the desk chair. Propped up against the chimney breast is an oval framed 1920s pastel portrait of a girl who looks so anxiously out of the picture that she engenders a slight feeling of unease in the viewer.

The Victorian fireplace has been painted white here too, and there is a large arched overmantel mirror above. The other alcove is occupied by a dresser stuffed with Anastasia's many course books. There is a Lloyd loom sewing box that doubles as a seat and a wooden painted trolley houses a sewing machine, a teapot stuffed with scissors and a tape measure, as well as baskets of fabrics. "I make bunting for the tea parties. I theme it by colour so that I can complement the colour scheme of the wedding or other celebration. I make masses of it and use both vintage and new fabrics. I also use the oddments for these," Anastasia says, as she opens a deep drawer to reveal hundreds of luggage labels tied with ribbons and strips of rosebud printed fabric. "I tie these onto chairs at the events we do and they just have 'The Kent Vintage Tea Party' on them along with the logo I designed and the website address, so hopefully, people who find them are sufficiently curious to then look us up on the net and find out what we do. I designed the website too and then my friend Neil Robinson, who's a real technical genius, put it all together."
Further along the hallway, Anastasia shows me baskets of homemade bunting that she has packed for the following day's wedding. There are garlands of fabric roses and lace parasols, too, that she hires out for bridesmaids to carry, or they may simply be used to decorate the reception space. Little stacks of tea and bread and butter plates are ready to be drilled and made into cake stands, and there is a wicker hamper full of cups and saucers, but these are just a small part of her collection, for in the bathroom there are even more hampers of them along with recently washed cups, saucers and plates that sadly include a few 'casualties'.

"I broke a couple of cups by washing them in water that was too hot, but over the years I've actually had very few breakages. People who hire from us can either wash things up for themselves or pay a small percentage for us to do it." Almost all the cups and saucers are in different patterns, but whether they feature spots, florals or plain colours, they all have the soft pastel shades and fine gilding of their era in common, so they present a very pleasing impression as a whole. "Again, we choose the china quite carefully to match the colour scheme of each event. In a few days I'll be doing a special tea for the Wealden Times' Priceless People at Wadhurst Castle, where Penny Vincenzi will be speaking. Lucinda Hamilton, who creates those gorgeous cakes at Cocolicious, is providing the food, so we've decided on a rose and mint theme - everything will be pale pink and green."

The teacups and saucers that are part of her working life may have overflowed from the hallway into Anastasia's bathroom, but her bedroom seems to have remained sacrosanct. "I wanted somewhere to retreat to, a really serene space," she confirms. Perhaps though, this room should more accurately be described as a 'boudoir'. Two enormous painted and mirrored French armoires set the tone and the wrought-iron bed is dressed with antique embroidered linen as well as a cable knit blanket from Ralph Lauren and a patched sheepskin throw. "I've kept the colours neutral and calm in here, and used Crown's Rose White paint and then a pale Ralph Lauren striped wallpaper beneath the dado rail, but I wanted plenty of texture too," explains Anastasia. In front of the fireplace there is a dainty Rococo style bedroom chair upholstered in shell pink silk, antique lace camisoles hang from the door of one armoire and a garland of voile roses entwined around the frame of an overmantel mirror all add to the sense of luxurious indulgence.

There are three chests of drawers, sourced from Brocante and local flea markets and on the top of the largest, Anastasia has framed some classic British children's illustrations by Mabel Lucie Atwell. "The light came from Brocante too," she says, pointing to a metal chandelier decorated with china rosebuds. "They must know me pretty well by now, because Rob phoned to tell me that they had a 'hideously kitsch French flower light' in that they thought would suit me perfectly - and of course, I loved it!" Anastasia's flat is filled almost exclusively with the things she loves and has been put together in such a pretty and delicate way, it might almost be called a confection.

Address Book:

To find out more about Anastasia’s vintage crockery and accessory hire company The Kent Vintage Tea Party call 0845 474 4708 www.thekentvintageteaparty.co.uk

  • words Claire Tennant-Scull
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming