There it is…yet another embarrassing cabinet in my house, stuffed to the gills with my collections.
I love the Blue Willow pattern. My first Blue Willow was a set that my mother gave me.
The Blue Willow pattern has been a household favorite for over 200 years. It was created in England around 1780 but its Oriental origins are even older. Blue Willow is actually the oldest china pattern to still be reproduced today. How does one distinguish between Blue Willow and other patterns? Let’s start at the beginning.
Thomas Turner created the first Blue Willow design. He was inspired by the beloved blue and white Oriental china being exported to Europe at the time. Thomas Minton is known to have made the first copper engraving of the pattern for Turner in 1780. Minton later apprenticed under Josiah Spode, among other English potters. It was Spode that first mass produced the Blue Willow pattern on earthenware dishes around 1790.
Beginning in the 15th century, the Chinese started a booming business making export china for the European market. By the 18th century, this market expanded to America, as well. The Chinese produced extremely popular and desirable china for the western world with blue and white patterns. Even though this china had Oriental themes, it was for export only. Chinese citizens were not enamored with it. Dutch masters of the 17th century often included this china in their masterpiece paintings. Through extensive trade with the Dutch East India Company, this popular blue and white china became a favorite of the western world by the 18th century. It was prized for its durability and beauty. Most of the export china came in the form of tea services and dinnerware.
The classic features of the Blue Willow pattern are as follows: It is a distinctly Oriental themed pattern, always including a teahouse or pagoda, an Oriental bridge with three people crossing it, a willow tree, a zigzagging, latticework fence, and two birds in flight in the sky.
This particular china pattern has a mystery concerning its origin. Some say this wonderfully beautiful transfer ware china stems from a legend told in China more than a thousand years ago. It is believed that all the original Willow Pattern plates were destroyed by the Manchu rulers in China after they discovered that members of the illegal Hung Society defied them. The blue and white design is said to have been smuggled into England in the 19th Century and reintroduced back into China in the 19th Century.
No matter where or when this pattern appeared, no one can deny that this is one of the most recognizable china patterns in the world. The romantic fable is one that involves a wealthy Mandarin with a beautiful daughter. She fell in love with her father’s humble accounting assistant which did not make her father happy. (It was inappropriate for them to marry due to their difference in social classes). The father built a high fence around his house to keep them apart. The father planned the marriage of his daughter to a Duke. The Duke arrived by a boat to wed his bride and brought with him a gift box full of jewels. The day of the wedding was set when the blossom fell from the willow tree.
The night before the planned wedding, the accounting assistant dressed as a servant and entered the palace unnoticed. As the “bride” and the servant/accounting assistant escaped with Duke’s jewels, the father chased them over a bridge with a whip in hand. The lovers used the Duke’s ship and sailed to a secluded island where they lived happily for many years. The Duke eventually figured out where his bride was and sent soldiers that captured the lovers and put them to death. The Gods were moved by this, transformed the lovers into a pair of doves. (Early willow pattern plates do not have the doves and therefore this is believed to have been added to the tale at a later date).
There is no parallel legend in China of two such lovers, so the story origins are most likely as English as those of the pattern itself. No matter which version of the story is historically correct, it is not known for sure whether or not the story evolved after the pattern or vice versa.
The Victorians loved the pattern and several well-known potters both in England and here in America began to reproduce versions of Blue Willow of their own. Today, many manufacturers worldwide still produce Blue Willow. The most familiar pieces of Blue Willow china are done in blue and white. The Blue Willow pattern has been produced in other color combinations, as well. Red and white is the combination most frequently found in addition to the classic blue and white styles.
Try to stay away from damaged or repaired pieces, regardless of age. Collectors will always pay more for pieces in good condition and these pieces will retain their value and be worth far more in the future than damaged pieces.
Harder to find pieces are the more valuable regardless of the maker. This category includes bowls of any size, large platters, pitchers, teapots, egg cups and spoons.
Children’s Blue Willow play dish sets are extremely collectible and among the highest priced.
As you begin to collect Blue Willow, read as many books on the subject as you can. You will then learn to judge, fairly accurately, the origin of a piece of Blue Willow regardless of whether or not it is marked on the back. Judging the age of a Blue Willow piece can be a bit trickier because so many manufacturers are still producing it today. Willowcollectors.org has a great list of books for collectors of every level.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to display and use your collection. It is o.k. to collect older, unique pieces of Blue Willow just for show. But allow yourself to enjoy the pattern everyday, as well! With so many modern manufacturers producing it, you are sure to run across some dish washer safe, everyday Blue Willow to round out your collection. I mix and match a bunch of different Blue Willow patterns. I think it looks better that way!