Story of the Willow Pattern
Posted on: 15 January 2021 by Amanda Draper, Curator of Art and Exhibitions in 2021
Blue and white ‘Willow Pattern’ tableware is considered traditionally British, seen on plates, dishes and tea services on dressers and sideboards across the land. The pattern is clearly inspired by China, and its story certainly starts there, but we need to go back a long, long way to find out why.
The fine ceramic we know as porcelain was invented by the Chinese around 2,600 years ago. Made from a kaolin clay mixture, it was a clear white colour which could be made so fine it was almost translucent. By the 1300s cobalt blue pigment was being used to create designs on white porcelain wares, and blue and white Chinese patterns were born.
Europeans could only make ceramic items from brown clays so, when delicate blue and white Chinese porcelain wares began to be imported in numbers in the early 1600s, they caused a sensation. The cargoes were so valuable they were known as ‘white gold’. European makers kept trying to re-create porcelain but they couldn’t replicate its white kaolin clay mixture.
Dutch Delftware plate of tin-glazed earthenware with Chinese-style figures, 1700s (VG&M Collection)
As they couldn’t figure out how to make porcelain, British and Dutch makers tried another approach. They covered their local brown earthenware with a white tin glaze decorated with mainly blue designs, very often with Chinese-style motifs. From around 1620, the main centre of production was the town of Delft in the Netherlands, and this type of blue and white ware became known as Delftware wherever it was made. Eventually, the German factory of Meissen found the secret of producing porcelain using locally-sourced kaolin in 1710 and other European makers rapidly followed, but it didn’t dim the desire for real Chinese porcelain.
And what of the Willow Pattern?
All through the development of porcelain the attraction of the simple combination of blue motif on white continued. Although more Western designs developed, Chinese-themed patterns endured. These were often elaborate, containing buildings, bridges, trees, figures, birds and floral elements set in waterside location and surrounded by a decorative border. They were based on original Chinese designs usually described as ‘estuary scenes’.
The Willow Pattern Story
The design is thought to have been inspired by a Japanese fairy tale called The Green Willow and Chinese variants of it which tells of two thwarted lovers. Then, in 1849, an article called ‘The Story of the Common Willow Pattern Plate’ was published in The Family Friend magazine. It set out a narrative that has become the standard interpretation of the pattern.
Other elements of the story such as the Duke arriving by boat, three men giving chase over the bridge, and even the far away island can be seen in the pattern.
Willow Pattern tureen unearthed from the VG&M stores. It has since been cleaned. Attributed to Ridgeway, c.1910
The Willow Pattern gets mass-produced
Meanwhile, the ceramics industry in Britain evolved very quickly. A way of transfer printing patterns onto plain white wares had been originated here in Liverpool in 1756. It allowed highly complex designs, such as the Willow Pattern, to be put on items quickly and cheaply, usually on white or cream glazed earthenware.
By the late 1800s many British ceramics companies produced wares with some variant of the Willow Pattern, and it remained popular with buyers throughout the 1900s. Sadly, it is less fashionable at the moment but the Churchill company in Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent still produce a range called Blue Willow Sandringham.
A display about the Chinese influence on the Willow Pattern can be seen in our Gallery 1 when we re-open.