You’ve all seen it.
Chances are you’ve got a grandmother/neighbour/maiden aunt who proudly presents this ubiquitous blue and white tableware whenever the occasion allows for it. And indeed, as of 1990, willow pattern represents the longest continually produced china pattern in history, so its frequency is somewhat understandable.
In the 18th century Chinese porcelain was imported into England by companies such as the East India Company and quickly became hugely popular with wealthy clients. When its trade ceased, most local manufacturers quickly developed their own version of the blue and white patterns in an effort to meet continuing demand. The improvements to transfer printing made by Josiah Spode allowed for much cheaper, more available wares, and in 1790 the first willow pattern was produced on pearlware at the Spode factory. Thus, a superstar was born.
But what superstar is complete without a salubrious past?
This one comes complete with a tale of star-crossed lovers – the Mandarin’s daughter and the secretary, and the immortality of their love beyond death. Or, if that’s a little too Romeo and Juliet for you: the destruction of a Shaolin Monastery by imperial Manchu soldiers, and the souls’ passage to the isle of the Blessed.
There are poems, films, and even a comic opera of this ‘great legend’, but despite this rich history, its origins remain stalwartly British, with only the barest relation to the Chinese mythologies and fine hand-painted porcelain that inspired it.
Over the years Blue Willow pattern has conquered not only local markets, but has filtered out into the rest of the world, becoming an iconic symbol of British ceramics. And the source of many of these newly produced pieces? Why, China of course. It appears that the willow pattern story has finally come full circle.