Monday, October 24, 2016

A Romantic Tale

QUESTION: Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved the look of Blue Willow china. My mother had a set that she brought out for special occasions. I used to love to clean my plate so I could see the delicate Chinese blue decoration on the white plate. Recently, I bought an older pink plate made by Homer Laughlin here in the U.S. This is the first time I’ve seen this pattern in another color. What can you tell me about the origin of the plate’s design and about other colors of glaze used to produce it?

ANSWER: The Blue Willow pattern has been in existence since the late 18th century. For over 200 years, it has been one of the most popular china patterns ever made. These mostly blue and white dishes could be found in many households, from the mansions of the wealthy to the more modest homes of the middle class. Today, the pattern can even be purchased in supermarkets.

Many people have looked at the three figures going over the bridge, the pagoda, the boat, and the two birds hovering above the willows and wondered what story inspired  the scene.

The pattern featuring this scene became popular when English ceramic artists combined and adapted motifs inspired the hand-painted blue and white ware then imported from China. In developing the Blue Willow pattern, English potters were finally able to produce a dinnerware to compete with the Chinese imports. At the same time, a new decoration technique using engraved tissue paper transfers allowed potteries to cut costs and mass produce china to sell at a reasonable price.

English potteries produced many different Chinese-inspired landscape patterns using this process, both on bone china and porcelain wares, and on white earthenware. The Blue Willow pattern became the most popular and has remained in production ever since. The majority of pieces have a white background with blue images, but some potteries have used other colors in various pastel tints.

No one knows exactly when the pattern first appeared, but during the 1780s various engravers including Thomas Lucas and Thomas Minton began producing Chinoiserie landscape scenes based on Chinese ceramic originals.  These included scenes with willows, boats, pavilions and birds which artists later incorporated into the Blue Willow pattern. In 1793, Thomas Minton set up his own studio in Stoke-on-Trent, from which he produced willow patterns for Spode and other potteries. Most historians agree that Minton probably produced the Blue Willow pattern known today for Spode around 1790.

Normally, the pattern fills a circular or oval area on a piece of china, surrounded by a decorative border. The waterside landscape represents a garden in the lower right side, in which a large two-story pavilion stands. Approached by steps, the lower story has three large pillars with arched windows or openings between. The roof and gable, shown in three-quarter perspective, is surmounted by a smaller room with a similar roof, and there are curling finials at the gables and eaves. Bushes and trees with varied fruit and foliage, including a large tree rising behind with clusters of oranges, surround the pavilion. The roof of another pavilion appears among the trees to the right and a smaller pavilion stands to the left projecting from the waterside bank. A path through the garden leads to the front of the scene and a fence of diapered panels set in a zigzag fashion crosses the foreground.

On its left side the garden forms an irregular and indented bank into the water. In the  foreground of which a large branching willow tree with four clusters of three leafy fronds leans out. From this point a bridge, usually of three arches, crosses left to an island or bank with a house having a tall arched doorway, and a small tree behind. There are usually three figures on the bridge going away from the garden. Above and beyond this the water forms an open expanse, with a boat at the center left containing two little house-like cabins, propelled by a figure with a punt-pole. In the upper left quarter is a distant island or promontory with pavilions and trees, including a fir. Above the scene in the center is a pair of flying doves, one turning and one descending, their heads and beaks turned closely towards one another in amorous conjunction.

Though there are variations, the Blue Willow pattern always includes the bridge, the garden fence, the central pair of birds, and the particular details of the pavilions and surrounding trees

To promote sales of Minton's Willow pattern, Spode created stories based on the elements in the design.  The most popular is a romantic tale of a wealthy Mandarin who had a beautiful daughter Koong-se. She fell in love with Change, her father's servant. This made her father angry because he wasn’t of the same social class as Koong-se. He dismissed the young man and built a high fence around his house to keep the lovers apart. The Mandarin planned for his daughter to marry a rich merchant, who 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 merchant, Chang slipped into the palace unnoticed. As the lovers escaped with the jewels, the alarm sounded. They ran over a bridge, chased by the Mandarin, whip in hand. Eventually they escaped on the merchant's ship to the safety of a secluded island, where they would have lived happily ever after. But one day, the merchant 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. However, early plates lack the doves, suggesting that Spode added this detail to the story later on.

Some people, including author Allan Drummond would have readers believe that the pattern was the result of this story, but in fact, it was the other way around. The romantic story was a marketing tool that Spode used to sell its wares—nothing more, nothing less.