It’s a warm, overcast Saturday morning and we’re in the historic market town of Tetbury to meet with antiques dealer and collector, Catherine Waters. A friendly and cheerful woman, Catherine welcomed us at 48 Long Street and offered us a glimpse into her life as a mother, Bristolian and antiques dealer, telling us how her lifelong passion for vintage things and antiques led her to open her own shop nearly two years ago in the attic room of this 17th century building that she now shares with fellow dealer and shopkeeper Emma Leschallas.
Taking her passion for old, humble and soulful things to a whole new level, Catherine has managed to create a warm and inspiring space filled with thoughtfulness, authenticity and calm, where all the beautiful objects on display whisper the story of their meandering passage through time. As the morning advanced, we went for a walk around the town and ended our get-together exploring St Saviour's Church, a beautiful 19th century Gothic Revival church constructed of local stone and Cotswold slates and built in a magnificently ornate medieval style.
For those who do not know you, who is Catherine Waters?
I'm a collector, turned dealer, of beautiful old things that have caught my eye and held my interest. My other passions include film, words and photography. I love taking photos on my old Olympus OM-1. I've had that camera for 25 years and my 3 children's childhoods were recorded on it. I have 2 sons now aged 20 and 17, and a daughter who is 11. I live with my 2 younger children (my eldest is away at university), Dan, my partner, who is a carpenter, builder and also a collector, and our 2 rescue dogs.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
I vividly remember my grandma taking me to antique fairs when I was very young, I imagine around 6 or 7 years old. I loved watching her search for treasure and remember her excitement at opening the parcels that were wrapped in newspaper, when she got home.
How did your interest in Antiques first develop?
For as long as I can remember, I have loved clothes, furniture, books, art, photographs and textiles that are old. I love the idea that the things that we use everyday have a story behind them, a history. And I love the worn-in look. I almost feel as though I've failed if I buy something new. I think old things have more soul.
How did you come up with the idea of starting an Antiques business and what made it worth pursuing?
I was spending most weekends trawling antique fairs, flea markets and antique shops for interesting and ancient things. Windowsills, shelves, and cupboards were beginning to get very full at home. I realised that antiques and interiors were, and are, my passion, and that I may as well try to make a living from it because I'd have always wondered if I could otherwise.
Why Tetbury? How did you choose the location for the shop?
I started by having a sale in our home in Bristol and I invited a few friends. It was quite intimate, the response was really positive and we even sold some things. Then I decided to try setting up an antiques fair in Bristol, because I felt there was a gap in the market for that. My friend had recently had her birthday at The Forge, Bristol, and I'd loved the space there. That led to me organising three 'Hunter Gatherings' antique fairs at The Forge. The fairs went really well. But I'd started to dream of having my own small antique shop where I could take my time to display things beautifully, photograph them and enjoy being around them for a while longer.
Tetbury is not that far from Bristol and I knew it was full of antique shops. Emma Leschallas (who I'd chatted to through Instagram) owned one of them. So I messaged Emma and asked if there was a small space in Tetbury she'd recommend for me to rent. She made a few suggestions and then said that she'd just decided to let the upstairs of her shop and asked if I'd like to have a look. I went over to meet her straight away. I climbed the stairs and loved the room instantly and we pretty much agreed everything there and then. I just had a good feeling about Emma and I loved the space (a small attic room in a 17th century building).
Where do you find the items that you’re selling in your shop?
All over the place. We go to France and I go to markets and fairs and the occasional auction. Sometimes people contact me if they've got something to sell that they think I'll love.
Was was the most memorable buying trip so far?
I went to France with Dan and Elsa (our daughter) in early spring to a huge flea market. We arrived quite late the night before and parked in a slightly dubious looking area. Dan decided to hide our euros in the van but they got completely stuck in a cubby hole and he spent ages trying to fish them out again and then had to sellotape them all back together at 3am after very little sleep. Elsa was 10 years old and she was so cold we had to put socks on her hands because we'd forgotten her gloves. She was a trooper though. I loved the characters we met that day and finding things by torchlight and being impressed by Dan haggling in French which seemed to involve a fair bit of shoulder shrugging, smiling and hand shaking. I loved that trip.
What are your favourite interior design trends?
That's a tough one. I'd like to think I don't really follow trends but I'm sure I'm influenced, of course. I love lived-in homes that have a mixture of antiques, art, photographs and books. And I love natural history.
What is your philosophy on interior design and lifestyle?
All of my favourite things tell a story. Either because you can see how it was made and so you imagine the person who made it or because it has been touched by hand in some way. For example, I've got an old French decorator's ladder that has still got its old paint and has scribbled numbers and measurements down the side, in pencil. I love simple, humble objects. I've often tried to buy the scraps of fabric that an antique object has been wrapped in. And I often love the back of antique textiles more than the 'good' side. In the same way that photographs of people that are taken behind the scenes or backstage are always more interesting than glossy portraits, because people are caught off guard, that is what I'm searching for in antiques. My philosophy on interior design and lifestyle would be to follow your heart and to trust your instinct. But also to be prepared to be proved wrong. So, to be open-minded.
What do you do or where do you go for inspiration?
I love walking around new places and just discovering things as I go along. I love old buildings, churches, graveyards, salvage yards, art galleries, antique shops and bookshops. A trip to London and a great photography exhibition always inspires me. And meeting new people who are creative and passionate. Watching a really good documentary about an artist or photographer can inspire me. I also look at Instagram for inspiration. A couple of my favourite accounts are Plumes & Feathers, curated by Deborah Beau and also Joanna Maclennan. I think Joanna is a very talented interiors photographer.
What keeps you driven?
The thrill of the chase ‒ never knowing what I'm going to find next, and the excitement when I find something special. That and the need to make a living from this business.
What makes your house a home? Do you have any favourite items or possessions?
I think what makes our house a home is the family, obviously, and the dogs and the things we've chosen together. I love our photos and pictures and Dan's record collection and his old wooden hand tools. Pretty much all my favourite possessions I'm sentimentally attached to ‒ scribbled notes from the children when they were little, funny old rusty things Dan's given me because he knew I'd love it. Dead butterflies and moths in matchboxes. Old bird's nests. Shells and pressed flowers. One of my favourite ever finds is a small, 19th century writing slope ‒ very simply made. Inside it's full of graffiti written in French by the children who must have used it. There are little sketches signed with the children's names and dates. My heart leaps whenever I open it ‒ I love it so much.
What can we find in your wardrobe? How would you define your personal style?
Most of my clothes are vintage but wearable. I particularly love workwear. And anything darned.
Your home and workshop is in Bristol and your shop is in Tetbury. How do you split your time between the two locations?
I'm at my shop 2 or 3 days each week. Emma kindly sells my things on my behalf when I'm not there.
What advice would you have for aspiring antique dealers out there?
Meet other dealers ‒ they are a really friendly bunch of people and they will be some of your best customers. And develop your own style. But, above all, try it. Being an antique dealer has highs and lows, but it's great fun and I feel very grateful to be able to have a shot at it.
What are your dreams and ambitions for your shop?
I would like to just build on what I have ‒ to go to France more on buying trips, to develop a stronger look, to buy a decent camera so that I'm not just taking photographs of stock on my phone, and to be able to continue doing what I love.
Can you recommend us:
A book: Derek Jarman's Garden
A song: "This Bitter Earth" Dinah Washington/Max Richter
A film: Blue Valentine
Thank you, Catherine for sharing with us your fascinating journey into the world of antiques and for the wonderful tour around Tetbury.