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The Willow Pottery Pattern: These Lovers Flew Away


The success of the Willow pattern in the nineteenth century, the vast quantities in which C19th pieces survive and the enduring popularity of the design which continues in production today - it might be all too easy to consider the design as of little merit or interest. But this would be to dismiss the significance of the pattern's history, its origins rooted in its time and place, and the innovation and ingenuity of the astute business acumen in the Staffordshire potteries.

The circularity of the relationship between design and mass production is possibly nowhere better illustrated than in the success of the Willow pattern for the thriving nineteenth century pottery industry. The invention of transfer printing in the eighteenth century enabled unprecedented expansion, initially drawing almost exclusively on the influences of the designs on the Chinese porcelain, imported in vast quantities into England during the 1700s.

This rapid growth of the imported Chinese wares was directly linked to the expanding horizons of the East India Company, which established a regular passage to China from Europe via the Cape of Good Hope to India. After a long layover in Canton, the ships were loaded with cargo, including the precious tea, for the return passage. Heavy seas were regularly encountered on the return voyage and the hulls took in water. A cargo was needed which could be stowed in the lowest section of the hulls without deterioration. Porcelain was an ideal cargo for this purpose and the wares were packed in specially made boxes, stacked to form a platform on which the other more vulnerable goods could be stowed. Officers of the company were also permitted to make use of this space for their own enterprises, the amount of space being allocated according to rank.1 On arrival back in England, the Chinese blue painted porcelains met a ready and voracious market throughout the first half of the C18th.

The domestic porcelains also acquired their own niche corner of the market alongside the Chinese wares and, for a time, both the imported and home-grown wares seemed to enjoy an almost certain co-existence. However, by the 1770s several factors combined to depress both the imported Chinese and the predominance of porcelain altogether. The potteries had felt the effect of war in the Americas, with the interruption in the export trade serving to further dampen the markets for porcelain in particular, already under severe pressure from increasing domestic competition and its effect on prices for economic production. America also began to trade for itself directly with Canton.

The porcelain manufacturers experienced practical problems in production of the larger dinner plates and were in any case losing ground to the prevailing fashionable taste for the pearlware and creamwares. Josiah Wedgwood's persistence in his trials to perfect his creamware body was triumphantly rewarded in 1765 by Queen Charlotte's commission of a large service and the bestowal on Wedgwood of the right to name his new ceramic Queensware. The elegance of the wares which could be produced perfectly matched the Neo-Classical style, at the height of fashion at a time of the work of the designers such as Adam and Sheraton and became the preferred choice of the wealthy and aristocratic households.

Chinese porcelain and Liverpool porcelain Jumping Boy pattern, both C1760

Chinese porcelain and Liverpool porcelain Jumping Boy pattern, both C1760

Demand was fueled by the aspirational taste of the newly monied merchants and industrialists, keen to emulate their more patrician neighbours. Although eighteenth century English society was one of clear social divide, it was far removed from the rigid structure in other countries, such as at the French court at that time. The landed gentry, for example, would leave their estates for frequent visits to London, where they mingled freely with the highest levels of society and would observe the customs and trappings of the Georgian court. The industrial revolution brought unprecedented economic growth, creating a new merchant class and the increased wealth of this emergent middle stratum was reflected by the surge in demand for goods to reflect their enhanced status and aspirations. Fashionable taste favoured the creamwares for the dinner table, and porcelains wares for tea and dessert services, and the merchant classes followed fashion. However, fashionable the wares may have been, but the market was nevertheless limited, chiefly by affordability and there was a finite capacity for repeat orders.

Under the severe constraints being experienced, the focus of many manufacturers turned to volume. The solution to the challenge of bringing dinner, dessert and tea wares, which would be both affordable and fashionable to the previously untapped potential of the lower middle and working class market, came with the invention of, and advances in, transfer printed decoration.

Trade in porcelains from China began a sharp decline with the imposition of onerous import duties, which were to rise from 47% to 109% and above by 1790. While the import duties were escalating, added incentive for the domestic market came with the Commutation Act of 1784, at a stroke reducing the tax on tea from 119% to 12.5% - overnight, the profit in the trade in smuggled tea disappeared and the East India company maximised the opportunity to boost its trade in imported tea at the expense of the porcelain wares.

The opportunities thus presented, both by the loss of the imported porcelain and the new market occasioned by the expanding merchant classes, coincided with the developments in printed decoration. Although blue printing underglaze was still in its infancy when it was in use at Worcester on its porcelains in the 1750s, the technique spread to other porcelain factories. The domestic Blue and white porcelains, decorated in the Chinoiserie style, fed a lucrative and fashionable market.

Broseley: Chinese hand painted original to the left

Broseley: Chinese hand painted original to the left

However, fashion should not be considered synonymous here with popularity, price and affordability inevitably restricts expansion; these wares were still predominantly targeted at wealthier patrons. Josiah Spode identified the possibilities offered by the niche market for less expensive tableware in a sophisticated style. His refinements and improvements to the underglaze blue printing process meant that by the 1785 the Spode factory was producing its first blue and white printed earthenwares. The fashionable creamwares were unsuited for blue printing, having the unsatisfactory effect of rendering the cream ground a dingy hue, combined with consequent loss of sparkle to the blue, but earthenware (and pearlware) provided the perfect 'canvas.' The cleaner ground and blue patterning were in harmonious complement, the pearlware glaze enhancing the blue, rather like old-fashioned laundry blue might be used to 'make your whites whiter'!

From its very beginnings, Spode's printed wares exhibited a skilled and polished degree of artistry, thanks in great part to the work of the engraver Thomas Lucas. Both Lucas and his apprentice Thomas Minton, who was to move to Staffordshire and also work for Spode for a brief period a few years later, had worked under Thomas Turner at the Caughley works in Shropshire. Lucas undoubtedly brought with him to Spode the skills in printing acquired during his time at Caughley. Spode would already have been closely familiar with the Chinese designs from the matchings produced by the factory and the first Spode underglaze blue printed earthenware pattern produced was the Mandarin, copied from the Chinese. Mandarin and Broseley were seminal in the history of the Willow pattern, which incorporated a combination of various recurring elements, among them the willow tree, the fence, the bridge and figures, and the pagoda teahouse.

Caughley porcelain Willow Nankin

Caughley porcelain Willow Nankin

Turner had produced the first printed Broseley pattern on porcelain c1780. Probably engraved by Minton, it was a direct copy from the Chinese but named after a neighbouring Shropshire town. Spode's version of Caughley's Broseley used the title Two Temples II. The Mandarin pattern derived from the Chinese Two Birds pattern. Both contain the essential elements which are combined and re-arranged in the composition for the Willow pattern, which appeared in 1790. Minton possibly had some hand in the engraving of the plate for Turner's version of the Mandarin, certainly he would have been aware of it from his time apprenticed there under Lucas. The Caughley version is faithful to the original Mandarin and although now known as Willow Nankin, this is a C20th nomenclature and the name does not appear in the factory records. Mandarin or Nankin, both feature elements which will recur in the Willow pattern but are very different from the famous pattern which was to become so familiar – and seemingly ubiquitous.

Spode: Mandarin pattern

Spode: Mandarin pattern

Spode's design, incorporating the familiar elements within an original composition not found in the Chinese wares, evolved through several versions. The first copper plate in 1790 was entirely line engraved whereas areas of stipple punch engraving are seen by the time of the engraving for Willow Third version.

The Willow patterned wares were to prove a success, quickly copied and produced by other factories, so much so that by 1824 a salesman's order specified any pattern but 'must be blue willow.' So specific a reference to 'willow,' but so general in other details, underlines how the design at that time carried no association with any romantic tales – the story with which the pattern has become inextricably tied was to come a few years later, when all the essential elements were woven into a Victorian melodrama, published in The Family Friend in 1849. The pagoda with the orange tree behind, the willow tree hanging over the three figures crossing the bridge, the fence in the foreground, the boat, the island and the two birds: all were drawn together in a work of fictional flummery which nevertheless caught the public imagination, raveling the tale into the pattern – an association which has endured through the following hundred years. The height of its popularity may be gauged by the eccentric Sir George Sitwell's suggestion that his cattle be stenciled in the blue willow pattern!

Understanding the origins of the design, however, explains the disparity between the high drama of the tale it ostensibly recounts and the cool, rather dispassionate air of the figures on the bridge. The third figure, the angry mandarin in the tale, trots gently in the rear, holding a fishing rod, resembling a yoyo. The second figure carries a scroll ( a less than vital accessory for a girl fleeing a fate worse than death), although those of an irreverent frame of mind might believe it more closely resembles a surfboard tucked under the arm. The trio make an orderly progress over the bridge, in the manner of society members on their way to a meeting convened on the other side of the river, each in silent contemplation of the second item on the agenda. Certainly there is a marked absence of any sense of the urgency advisable for lovers escaping the wrath of an irate father.


Willow was copied by numerous factories and identification as to maker is not always straightforward, not only on account of similarities in the engravings, but an impressed maker's mark will not always be the factory which printed the decoration and sold the ware. It was not uncommon for a factory to purchase in blanks, often to complete a large order. The border and nankin itself can be useful guides for confirming a factory and small differences in the pattern can be helpful also, but not invariably, since makers might adapt their pattern for different shapes and sized wares. It is therefore unsafe to reply for attribution on small differences in detail, such as the numbers of oranges on the tree.

The Willow is the epitome of European chinoiserie, a fantasy version of China which might be all too tempting to ridicule from a jaded C20th perspective, were it not redeemed by its innate and rather innocent charm. The dogged determination of the eighteenth century potters, their persistence in trials and experiments which eventually bore fruit in the invention and successful development of underglaze printing techniques, and the new ceramics and glazes to enhance the results, brought remarkable innovation which reinvigorated the pottery industry.

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Any contempt bred from familiarity with this most famous of patterns should therefore be considered in the context of the time and place, leavened by the history of its origins. Remove the rather silly story from the equation and the pattern can be seen as a clever and successful re-interpretation within a well-balanced composition. The enduring appeal of this design has survived and thrived, and no collection of blue and white transferware can be considered complete if it does not include at least one substantial piece of Willow Pattern.

These Lovers Flew Away

Trembling with fear, the young girl pressed closer into the protective circle of Chang's arms, as the thunderous battering against the door echoed around the inside of the gardener's cottage in which the young lovers had sought refuge. The terrible knowledge of the dreadful fate which awaited them both, if they failed to make their escape, rendered them momentarily frozen into inaction.

A Mandarin, grown fat and rich from bribes in his duties as a customs officer for the Emperor, planned an alliance between his beautiful young daughter and an old but wealthy aristocrat. On discovering his daughter was in love with his secretary, Chang, the son of a poor fisherman, the Mandarin flew into a rage and locked Koong-se inside a small house, surrounded by a fence to prevent the lovers from continuing their association. As is the way with all romances, at least in fiction, love finds a way and the lovers met in secret to make their plans – on the day appointed, they began their escape, sheltering in a gardener's cottage temporarily until their absence was discovered.

Recovering his wits, Chang leads Koong-seout through a back door and they cautiously make their way across the bridge, but are spotted by the Mandarin who gives chase. Reaching the other side, the lovers make use of a small rowing boat to attempt to cross the waters and reach refuge on a small island. But the Mandarin and his household are gaining on them, in faster boats propelled by stronger oarsmen. Seeing their desperate plight, the gods take pity on the young people and turn them into birds who soar away to freedom.

Willow blue transferware

Willow blue transferware


English Blue and White Porcelain - Watney

Minton Pottery 1795-1836 - Priestman

Spode Transferware Patterns - Robert Copeland

Spode Transferware Patterns 1784-1833 - Drakard & Holdway


Adem on January 09, 2015:

Jen: I do enjoy this view, I have to admit.Catherine: They say Halloween can be the turning point in the waehter.Sharon: I love the wide open expanses here.June: They call this province, The Land of the Living Sky because it's constantly changing. We can see storm fronts approaching from quite a way off, that's true.Linda: It is so incredibly quiet here, I love it - except for the sound of the wind that's frequent and relentless. The views remind me a lot of the vastness of your neck of the woods.

Latoya on January 08, 2015:

At last some rantitaloiy in our little debate.

Ellalou O'Meara on May 31, 2014:

ALso great overview Reference collections really useful, thanks.

Mark from Alabama,USA on August 20, 2011:

Is that Blue willow.

I love the pics, I have a FLO-Blue plate that has a similar pattern on it.

Thanks for all the info

Great hub

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