Blue Willow History and Lore
By Rebecca Ruger
The Blue Willow pattern may be the most recognizable pattern of china ever produced. Created in the late 18th century, it was intended to add a touch of Oriental magic to cheaper earthenware, as the English were keen on all things Chinese at the time. The design was printed on a transfer which was applied to the plate before firing. Josiah Spode is believed to have created his own version around 1784. While the pattern was most popular in blue, many pieces were made in red, green and brown. The following was originally prepared as an article entitled “The Willow Pattern” by the editorial staff of the Mentor Association, and was first published in 1915 for The Mentor, Vol. 3 No. 10, Serial No. 86.
Thomas Turner, who went from Worcester in 1772 to Caughley in Shropshire, brought his factory into prominence. His body and glaze soon rivaled Worcester, where he had learned his trade. Turner made a specialty of Chinese designs in blue under-glaze; and in 1780 he introduced the famous “willow pattern,” which was engraved for him by Thomas Minton. The original copper plate, worn to the thinness of paper, the first and earliest rendering of this celebrated design, is preserved at Coalport, a treasured relic. Thomas Minton (born 1765), later to be a famous potter, was at first an engraver. He was apprenticed to Turner at Caughley, and afterward to Josiah Spode.
The Caughley willow pattern was introduced by Spode into Staffordshire in 1784, and it was taken up by Adams, Wedgewood, Davenport, and Clews, and at Leeds, Swansea, etc., with differences, particularly in the fretted border and fence in the background.
The story is of two faithful lovers. On the right hand side is seen a large and magnificent Chinese dwelling, by the side of which rare trees are growing. It is the home of a mandarin. His secretary, Chang, had fallen in love with the mandarin’s daughter, Koong-see. She loved in return, and they met clandestinely.The mandarin, on discovering the affair, forbade the youth to come near the house on pain of death, and confined his daughter within the dwelling, also building a high wooden fence from the wall to the water’s edge. He also betrothed his daughter to a rich viceroy, Ta-jin. The wedding was to take place when the “peach tree shall blossom in the spring.”
Koong-see watched with apprehension the budding of the tree, whose branches grew close to the walls of her apartment. One day half a cocoanut shell floated on the waves. She found in it a paper containing a verse. It was from Chang. He threatened suicide. Koong-see wrote an answer, “The fruit you most prize will be gathered when the willow blossom droops upon the bough,” and told him to come for her. The mandarin now brought Koong-see a box of jewels from Ta-jin, who soon arrived with his suite, and the nuptial ceremonies began. In the confusion Chang slipped into the house, and the lovers eloped; for “the willow blossom already droops upon the bough.” They gained the foot of the bridge by the willow tree. The mandarin saw and pursued them. To represent the story there are three figures on the bridge, — Koong-see carrying a distaff (emblem of virginity); Chang carrying the jewel box; and the irate mandarin with a whip.
Chang and Koong-see took refuge in the humble house of two of Koong-see’s former servants. This is represented at the foot of the bridge. Here Chang and Koong-see were solemnly betrothed. The mandarin, having now issued a proclamation offering rewards for the return of his daughter and the person of Chang, soldiers came to the gardener’s house to read it. Chang jumped from the window into the river and returned with a boat. Koong-see jumped into it, and the lovers were soon borne away on the rushing tide of the Yangtse Kiang and lost in the great mass of boats in that river. Chang bought an island with some of Ta-jin’s jewels, and the lovers settled upon it, building their house themselves. The island is shown on the plate with its small trees. Several years elapsed. Chang had prospered by tilling his island, and now turned to literature. He wrote a book, which attracted the attention of Ta-jin. He discovered Chang’s residence. He vowed revenge. Had not Chang stolen his bride and — still worse — his jewels?
With a military escort Ta-jin sallied forth to attack the island, to seize Koong-see, and to kill Chang. The peaceful inhabitants were not prepared. Chang was run through the body and mortally wounded; his terrified servants fled; and Koong-see, in despair, set fire to the house, perishing in the flames. The pitying gods now transformed Koong-see and Chang into two immortal doves, emblems of the constancy that united them in death. From the top of the willow plate, therefore, Kiing-see and Chang survey the scenes of their romantic lives.
This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine July/August 2018 issue.
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