I defy any gardener, even in a modern home, to do any digging without finding a few pieces of willow pattern china. It is so common that one barely notices it, whether it is found as garden fragments, encountered in antique shops or viewed as eBay listings. It comes in all forms – plates, jugs, bowls, cups, saucers, tureens in all sorts of shapes and sizes, varying in quality from fine early examples to increasingly poor imitations as well as a few modern reinventions on fine china. Early examples were hand-painted on porcelain, but as it became popular, transfers (described below) were used to cheaply replicate their finer predecessors.
The examples shown in the photo at above left were all found in my garden, and could date to any time between the 19th Century to relatively recent times. None of them are fine porcelain, all stoneware, which means that they were built to be durable. This does not mean that they were any less valued by their owners than finer bone china pieces, which are almost translucent, but either that their purchasers were unable to afford finer pieces, or that these were intended for everyday use. In either case the sheer volume of china that we have dug out of the garden argues that if finer pieces were purchased, they were kept safely on display or only used for special occasions, because so far we have only found two finer pieces of translucent china. It is a similar story with china dug out of a Darland garden by my parents (shown right). In that early Georgian garden, belonging to a large house built by a prosperous land-owner, the pottery was all fairly coarse, although there is no reason to suppose that the owners did not purchase finer wares that were better cared for.
In America, willow pattern is known as “blue willow,” but although the vast majority produced was in cobalt blue on white, there are also examples of red or brown, and even green on white, and there are some much later examples that were painted with multiple colours (and look both exceedingly odd and rather unpleasant). Today willow pattern has fallen out of fashion, presumably because it is so formulaic and so commonplace, in spite of attempts by some modern producers to reinvent it, but the history of willow pattern is an interesting one, even if the design itself has become rather tedious to the modern eye.
There are two strands to the invention of willow pattern, three stories to tell. The first is how and when willow pattern developed, what influenced it, and why it became so ubiquitous. The second story concerns the tale told by the pattern itself, which narrates a forbidden romance, a dictatorial father and an unwanted, ultimately vengeful suitor.
At the end I have a look at why the tale embedded into the willow pattern is fundamentally in opposition to Chinese morality, using two examples from Chinese literature.
I have already used the terms “china” and “porcelain,” and will go on to mention stoneware, so here are some quick and dirty definitions:
- Ceramics: all items made by clay and hardened by heat. A generic term used interchangeably with pottery.
- China: another generic term, referring to ceramics that have a pure white fabric, of the sort first seen in Europe on items imported from China
- Porcelain: from the Italian “porcellana.” Porcelain is made of fine-grained clay which is then fired at very high temperatures that causes a transformation of the material called vitrification. It is very thin, and semi-translucent.
- Pottery: objects made of fired clay
- Stoneware: fired at much lower temperatures than porcelain using inferior clays, and made into much thicker fabrics without any translucence. Similar to earthenware, which is also made with coarse clays but fired at a higher temperature than earthenware and is superior in quality.
- Transfers (discussed in more detail below): Replacing hand-painting to speed up the process of pottery manufacture, transfers produce a cheaper, less refined method of decorating ceramics. A copperplate engraved with the required design is inked and pressed on to paper that, while still wet, is in turn pressed on to a ceramic surface. The design left on the piece of pottery is the transfer.
The development and spread of the willow pattern design
I had always assumed that the willow pattern design was invented in China for the European export market in the late 18th Century, but this is not true. It is certainly true that decorated china had been finding its way into Europe and America for two centuries before willow pattern was invented. The East India Company began to purchase Chinese blue and white ceramics for the British market in the 16th Century when it was a luxury item. It swiftly became very popular and continued to be in high demand even after the East India Company was deprived of its right to trade in 1833. Private ships that began to import Chinese tea, still a high value import during the 19th Century, also brought back ceramics that were increasingly standardized and mass-produced for the European market. Chinese producers had swiftly developed a sense of what themes, colours and designs Europeans and Americans liked, and they began to make them in great quantities. Willow pattern was inspired by a type of blue and white porcelain called Nanking or Nankin Pattern. It was made at Ching-te-chen / Jingdezhen and then sailed down the river Yangtze to the coastal port of Nanking from where it was shipped to Canton. Canton was the main port at which foreign ships were allowed to trade, (the sole trading port until 1842) and here it was loaded on to European and American ships for the export market.
Although influenced by Nanking, willow pattern was not imported from China; it was an English invention based on Chinese patterns. The first version appears to have been produced in 1779 for Thomas Turner and his Caughley works in Shropshire, originally for a teapot, and then in the late 1780s on other objects, probably by apprentice Thomas Minton.
Robert Copeland, in Spode’s Willow Pattern, acknowledges Caughley but points out that this was not the standard willow pattern, which he argues persuasively was developed by Josiah Spode, and initially called the Mandarin pattern. It is not known if Turner, Minton or Spode had a particular story in mind when they began to produce their versions of the formulaic pattern, but a story soon emerged, and probably helped sales, raising the decoration from the level of a mere pattern to the encapsulation of an exotic legend (albeit one thought up in an English porcelain factory). It would otherwise be difficult to account for how popular the design became. Other manufacturers also went on to make willow pattern.
The main features of the willow pattern design
A 19th century anonymous poem, of which there are numerous versions, summarizes the main themes as follows:
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.
The story behind the features on the plate can be fairly short or tediously long, but the essentials of the story can be summarized quite briefly. Let’s have a closer look first at the main motifs that provide the cues for narrating the story.
The main anchoring feature of the composition is a two- or occasionally three-storey pagoda, usually just right-of-centre, approached by a path and a short flight of steps. To the left of it is a smaller pagoda on the edge of the river. A fence zig-zags across the front of the scene, blocking access to the approach path to the pagoda in its garden.
Behind the pagodas is a tree with big round discs that look like enormous pizzas. Susan Ferguson has researched these and concludes that although they are usually referred to as apples (heaven help you if an apple of that size landed on you), and sometimes oranges, they are probably abstractions of circular spans of a Chinese conifer (needle clusters), a design that over the centuries has become so simplified that on the willow pattern the species of tree is completely unidentifiable. In the absence of any other explanation that makes sense, I’m convinced. A lush arboretum surrounds the pagoda.
A huge willow tree leans over the bridge, to the left of the pagoda, which gives the design its name, and usually has some sort of rosette- or round-shaped growths on the trunk. Its long branches appear to blow lightly in the breeze.
The bridge crosses a narrow strait of water, met by a small building on the other side. The bridge is being crossed by a woman at the front, a man in the middle holding a long thin box, and another man raising a stick at the rear.
Above left of the willow is a large expanse of water crossed by a man navigating a boat, heading towards the pagoda. One or more cabins on the boat suggests that another person is inside.
In the distance at top left is an island with another pagoda, again surrounded by lush vegetation.
Overhead in the sky are a pair of birds facing each other, their wings spread to catch the breeze.
If the composition graces a plate, a tureen or a lid, the whole thing is usually circled with a loosely Chinese-themed geometric pattern, sometimes elaborated with leaves and flowers. On teapots, cups and jugs only favoured portions of the entire composition may be shown.
The story of a forbidden romance and how to read a plate
The story is an invention, and English interpretation of scenes on Chinese export ceramics that had no such narrative. It is probable that the story gained momentum as the willow pattern became more popular, becoming more elaborate over time. The basics are these, although there are multiple alternatives:
- The pagoda, right-of-centre, the garden, and the weeping willow: Once upon a time, there was a beautiful girl named Koong-see who lived in a palace in China, a delightful sprawling pagoda in lovely ornamental gardens, with cherry blossom, apple trees, willows, streams, wildlife and birdsong. Hidden within the pagoda, she is in love with a lowly office clerk named Chang, who serves her father, a mandarin (senior official), and is far beneath her social standing. They meet every night beneath the willow. Forbidden to marry by the Mandarin, she and Chang are in despair. Both console themselves by caring for the birds in the garden, to which they are devoted and which are, in turn, devoted to them
- The mandarin’s daughter is promised to a warrior duke against her wishes: The Mandarin has arranged for Koong-see to be married to the warrior Duke (a Ta-jin), who is even now approaching. Much older than Koong-see, he brings a treasure chest as a gift for his future bride. Deaf to Koong-see’s pleas, her father insists on the marriage, erects a huge fence around the house and garden and imprisons her in a small pagoda overlooking the lake. When the cherry blossom eventually blooms on the tree in the garden, the marriage will take place.
- Three individuals are seen crossing the bridge. When the Duke arrives, he, the Mandarin and guests celebrate with an excess of food and alcohol. Chang enters the compound and seeing that the inebriated gathering has fallen asleep, he goes to Koong-see and they flee, taking with them the duke’s treasure, crossing the bridge over the river. Koong-see is at the front, carrying a staff, the emblem of virtue. Chang follows her, carrying the stolen treasure in a rectangular box. They are pursued by the mandarin, brandishing a whip. Sometimes a a fourth figure is shown, and this is the duke seeking to retrieve both his bride and, probably more importantly, his treasure.
- The pagoda in a distant land, top left. Chang steals a small boat, and they couple sail to the north. Having made good their escape, the couple sell the duke’s treasure and buy a pagoda in a distant place. Having failed to find his daughter in spite of employing spies to track her down, the mandarin has the brilliant idea of releasing the birds that were so loved by Koong-see and Chang. The birds fly straight to the couple, with the mandarin’s warriors following close behind. When the warriors discover the hideaway they set it alight.
- The turtle doves in the sky. Koong-see and Chang die in the flames, but unspecified gods looking down on the scene take pity on the devoted couple and transform them into birds so that they can remain together for eternity.
The boat shown crossing the sea is alternatively interpreted as the approach of the duke, steered by a boatman, or as the departure of the lovers, steered by Chang.
An extended version, tears-and-all version of the tale, was published in The Family Friend, volume I, in 1849, and is extremely long-winded and tedious (as well as slightly sickly), but obviously pushed some of the right buttons in the 19th Century. As well as the anonymous poem quoted above, there were a number of others as well, some of which are posted on the Potteries website here and the Willow Collectors website here.
Chinese morality versus English romanticism
The willow pattern design that grew out of these imports was not merely an English invention, but the romantic tale of runaway lovers that was developed to sell the design would almost certainly have offended Chinese morality. The story was born of an unmistakeably western tradition, recognizable in the narrative concerns of star-crossed lovers, persecution by unwanted suitors and unreasonable parents, all of which are solidly familiar from the Classical Greek tale of Hero and Leander, the 16th Century Os Lusíadas by Luís de Camões, Shakespeare’s 1597 Romeo and Juliet, and many, many more.
There are some tales from Chinese literature that are superficially somewhat similar, but a closer look at them reveals culturally significant differences. Two good examples are “The Butterfly Lovers” and “Han Ping and His Wife.”
The story of the butterfly lovers concerns a rather complicated story about a woman disguised as a man, Zhu Yingtai, and her unsuspecting friend Liang Shanbo who eventually fall in love with one another. Although women were usually prevented from becoming scholars, Zhu was allowed to study in the guise of a young man. She meets a fellow scholar, and they become close friends, studying together for the following three years. Liang remains none the wiser, but Zhu begins to fall in love with him. Although tolerant enough to allow his daughter to study as a man, Zhu’s father expects her to return when he writes to tell her that he is ill. She departs, and Liang accompanies his dear friend for part of the route. Although she drops hints about her true sex, Zhu is unable to reveal her secret to Liang directly and intend invents a sister to whom she proposes that Liang should become betrothed. She offers to set up a meeting. Liang eventually visits Zhu, and finds that there is no sister and that Zhu is a woman. Liang realizes he loves Zhu and they are both overjoyed for a brief period, but Zhu now reveals that her father’s illness was a ruse and he has betrothed her to a wealthy merchant. Liang leaves, heartbroken, and although he tries to lead a normal life, soon dies. Zhu, meanwhile, is prepared for her wedding. The wedding procession forms, its route due to pass Liang’s grave. As they reach the grave, a great wind blows up, stopping the marriage party in its tracks. Taking the opportunity to pay her final respects to Liang at his grave, she begs for the grave to swallow her too, and in response to her pleas, it opens up and takes her in. Zhu and Liang rise as butterflies, and fly away together for eternity.
A second tragic romance, from a collection of early legends (The Man Who Sold A Ghost), is the tale of Han Ping and his wife also concerns lovers who were transformed into birds following the successful completion of their suicide pact. Han Ping and his wife were deeply in love. Han Ping worked for Prince Xang as steward. His wife was very beautiful and the king, inevitably attracted, took her for himself. Han Ping’s anguished protests were answered with imprisonment and hard labour. Eventually his wife managed to send Han Ping a letter, a cryptic message written using allusions to lay out her plan for suicide, which each carried out. In a separate letter to the king, she requested burial alongside her husband, but this was denied her. They were buried in the same cemetery but far apart. All was not lost. Two trees sprung up overnight and within only days were tall and strong, leaning towards each other, their branches intertwining. Two inseparable lovebirds nested in the branches of the entwined trees, the spirits of the wronged Han Ping and his wife.
Although Chinese literature has stories of star-crossed lovers, acting on a forbidden love was counter to Chinese ideas of obedience and arranged marriage and would never be celebrated. In the first case, even though Zhu is in love with someone else, she obediently, albeit unhappily, accepts marriage. The gods intervene to allow the couple to live together as butterflies, but only after Zhu has behaved with honour according to her father’s wishes. Although the couple were not married, they came to represent fidelity in marriage. In the story of Han Ping and his wife, the two are already married and it is only when the wife is dishonoured by the prince that they are reunited as birds, again demonstrating the power of marital fidelity.
All of this is far more subtle than the rather simplistic willow pattern narrative, which celebrates love conquering all, but ignores the Chinese morality that would have seen the willow pattern story and its outcome as abhorrent. Daughterly disobedience and unmarried, prohibited love would have been a serious breach of decency and integrity. Fleeing paternal control would have been unthinkable, particularly as it left behind and honourable and broken-hearted father. The theft of the Duke’s treasure would have appalled most Chinese people; the Duke, after all, was not the bad guy in the scenario, because arranged marriages were perfectly normal and his gift to his prospective bride was a gesture of great generosity. A happy-ever-after outcome for the disobedient and ungrateful runaways, even in the form of turtle doves, would not have been sanctioned by Chinese moralists or the authors of Chinese literature.
Stoneware and transfers
All of the willow pattern from my garden is robust transferware. We have found porcelain pieces in other designs, some of them very fine, but the vast majority of it, including all of the willow pattern, is transfers applied to stoneware and earthenware. Porcelain, almost translucent, was time-consuming to produce, often shattered during production, was usually hand-decorated and was therefore expensive to buy. Stoneware an earthenware were much easier to manufacture, fired at lower temperatures and not hand-painted. These solid wares were far more robust and suitable for everyday domestic use.
Replacing hand-painting to speed up the process of pottery manufacture in the second half of the 18th Century, transfers produce a cheaper, less refined method of decorating ceramics that could be produced by relatively unskilled workers rather than craft specialists. Chinese-influenced ceramics, like many product that were once luxury products due to their exotic source and/or their expensive manufacturing process, began to be produced in inferior fabrics, became more affordable, and were therefore in more demand, both in Britain and America. Once an appropriate fabric was developed, a quicker way of decorating the ceramics was required, and transfers were developed to meet this need. A copperplate engraved with the required design is inked and pressed on to paper that, while still wet, is in turn pressed on to a ceramic surface. The design left on the piece of pottery is the transfer. The meeting of the demand for transfer wares was helped by the roll-out of the canal network and the improvement of trade networks that accompanied the Industrial Revolution.
The history of the willow pattern design is far more interesting than the design itself and its narrative. Some of the earliest patterns, evoking original Chinese designs, had considerable charm, but very soon a fairly rigid formula was developed that was repeated over and over again, with only a little occasional variation from one piece to the next. As such it is more than a little tiresome.
It is anything but tiresome when the story emerges piece by piece from one’s garden, all of them minute fragments contributing to the house’s own narrative. Over time, the people who lived here broke an awful lot of pottery! The house, originally two neighbouring cottages, was probably occupied by families working for the local farms in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with a sign of increased prosperity when the two cottages were linked up to become a single building. The earliest finds from the garden belong to the later 19th Century, well into the period when most willow pattern was stoneware. Not the sort of thing that a farm labourer’s family would be able to indulge in, but probably affordable as Sunday Best for a slightly more affluent rural family. I need to find out a lot more about who lived in the house before speculating further.
It is interesting that willow pattern continues to be made and purchased. The above picture shows a simplified version of the traditional formulaic design, much less elaborate than earlier versions, much cleaner but also more sterilized. I would not have thought that it is the sort of story that would carry much appeal today, but the design itself obviously continues to be attractive to a modern audience. A quick search on Amazon produced willow pattern oven gloves, a willow pattern mug that could be personalized, an embroidery kit, a large tea set, a “collectible” thimble, a cushion cover and even a clock in the form of a willow pattern plate (shown left). A company called PRSC specializes in “deconstructed” willow pattern products, which take the motifs and arrange them in aesthetically pleasing combinations that abandon the narrative completely.
In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, willow pattern obviously spoke to something in people’s imaginations. Perhaps the very standardization and mass-production of the design enabled the more exotic to become both familiar and comprehensible, even offering some level of reassurance by its very familiarity. By developing new and improved ways of manufacturing pottery and decorating it, and taking advantage of new modes of transport and communication, potteries making ceramics in the English Midlands were able to spread willow pattern throughout the UK and into America. A decorative phenomenon, it is difficult to account for its success, but a success it certainly was. It has left a legacy that continues to attract collectors and re-interpreters alike.
For other posts in my History in Garden Objects series click here or see the
link of the same name in the Categories list on the right.
Books and papers
Copeland, R. 1999 (3rd edition). Spode’s Willow Pattern And Other Designs After the Chinese. Studio Vista
Ferguson, S. 2017. “Blue Willow”: Apples or Oranges? Transferware Collectors Club Bulletin, 2017 Vol. XVIII No. 1.
Hsien-Yi, Y. and Yang, G. 1958. The Man Who Sold A Ghost. Foreign Language Press
Available online at: https://www.bannedthought.net/China/MaoEra/Arts/Literature/TheManWhoSoldAGhost-ChineseTalesOfThe3rd-6thCenturies-1958.pdf
O’Hara. P. “The Willow Pattern That We Knew”: The Victorian Literature of Blue Willow. Victorian Studies. Vol. 36, No. 4 (Summer, 1993), pp. 421-442
Available online with the academic site JSTOR digital library if you register (free): https://www.jstor.org/stable/3828644?seq=1
East India company at home 1757-1857, University College London
The Willow Pattern Case Study: The Willow Pattern Explained
Willow pattern pottery
Popular Culture in Modern China
The Butterfly Lovers – Response. By Dr Liang Luo
The Potteries – An A-Z of Stoke on Trent Potteries
The Willow Pattern Story
Spode and Willow Pattern. By Pam Woolliscroft
Transferware Collectors Club
What is transferware?
Victoria Gallery and Museum, University of Liverpool
Story of the Willow Pattern, 15 January 2021 by Amanda Draper