I love to go to estate sales every Saturday and Sunday. One of the items I am on the hunt for is Blue Willow China. It has become nearly impossible to find for a decent price. I completely understand why. The Blue Willow pattern is extremely classic and fun to collect. Here is some interesting facts you may not know about these pieces.
Blue willow originated in England
Although you may assume that this design originated in China, it actually began in England. Thomas Minton and Thomas Lucas started to engrave the design in the 1780s for the Caughley ‘Salopian China Manufactory. Then in 1783, Thomas Lucas and his printer James Richards left Caughley to work for Josiah Spode, who mass produced many early Chinese-inspired transferware. Later in 1785, Thomas Minton also left Caughley and set up on his own account in 1793 in Stoke-on-Trent producing earthware. He is thought to have engraved versions of willow designs for Spode and various other manufactures in England. One reason Blue Willow became so popular in England was because the common interior design style was chinoiserie
. Chinoiserie was a popular European interruption of Chinese style in the 18th century. Surprisedly, China did not start producing Blue Willow until the late 1900s.
What makes an authentic Blue Willow?
- Willow tree
- Two birds
- A Chinese pine tree (thought to be a fruit tree)
- A fence
- A boat
- A pagoda (Chinese house)
- A bridge with three men
However, the pattern will have some variation between makers. Which leads me into my next point.
It has had hundreds of styles
Blue willow was not made by just one maker. In fact there is over 400 documented makers in Great Britain and 500 worldwide. In 1905, Buffalo Pottery, of New York, was the first cited producer in the United States. In England, Spode is one of the earliest English makers.
There are more colors
Most people have no clue that it is available in other colors. While the most common version is blue, it also comes in pink, green, brown, and multi-colored.
One of the first examples of transferware
So what is transferware? Transferware is pottery that has had a pattern applied by transferring the print from a copper plate to paper and finally to the pottery body. When Blue Willow was first produced many of the pottery imports were hand painted from China. Making Blue Willow into transferware made it easy and cheap to mass produce.
The legend behind the pattern
In order to promotes sales, various stories were invented based on the elements of the design. The most famous legend is based on the Japanese fairy tale “the Green Willow” and other ancient fairy tales originating in China. Obviously, the story was not true. It was just a sales gimmick.
The common romantic fable
“Once there was a wealthy Mandarin, who had a beautiful daughter (Koong-se). She had fallen in love with her father's humble accounting assistant (Chang), angering her father. (It was inappropriate for them to marry due to their difference in social class.) He dismissed the young man and built a high fence around his house to keep the lovers apart. The Mandarin was planning for his daughter to marry a powerful Duke. The Duke arrived by boat to claim his bride, bearing a box of jewels as a gift. The wedding was to take place on the day the blossom fell from the willow tree.
On the eve of the daughter's wedding to the Duke, the young accountant, disguised as a servant, slipped into the palace unnoticed. As the lovers escaped with the jewels, the alarm was raised. They ran over a bridge, chased by the Mandarin, whip in hand. They eventually escaped on the Duke's ship to the safety of a secluded island, where they lived happily for years. But one day, the Duke learned of their refuge. Hungry for revenge, he sent soldiers, who captured the lovers and put them to death. The gods, moved by their plight, transformed the lovers into a pair of doves.”
The old poem
“Two birds flying high, A
Chinese vessel, sailing by.
A bridge with three men, sometimes four,
A willow tree, hanging o’er.
A Chinese temple, there it stands,
Built upon the river sands.
An apple tree, with apples on,
A crooked fence to end my song.”
Another old poem from late nineteenth century Shropshire is:
"Two swallows flying high,
A little boat passing by,
A little bridge, with willows over,
Three men going to Dover,
Now Dover church stands very bare,
Twice a week they worship there,
A little tree with apples on,
And plaited palings in the sun“.
The design is not just on dishes
Although it is commonly seen on china, Blue Willow can be found anywhere from fabrics, furniture, wallpaper, to cellphone cases.