The mystery of blue willow pattern china

Blue Willow Pattern

Ever since I started reading the Lovejoy mysteries, I’ve been entranced by author Jonathan Gash’s knowledge of antique pottery. To the mix, I must now add Robert van Gulik, who authored The Willow Pattern, a book I just finished. I was drawn to the title because I recognized the china pattern and was thrilled about the chance to read another mystery revolving around pottery. I love it when an expert decides to write fiction using the reservoir of knowledge they’ve attained. This is very much the case with Van Gulik, a Dutch diplomat who spent many years in China and who, in fact, married the daughter of a mandarin. Below is an an excerpt from the Postscript, van Gulik gives us the history of the Willow Pattern, from the folkloric myth to actual production of pottery with the pattern in England and China. Fascinating stuff from a true master!

“The precise origin of the willow pattern is an unsolved mystery. It has not yet been ascertained what Chinese model, if any, the famous English artist Thomas Turner followed in designing this motif for the Caughley Factory in Staffordshire, when he was working there from 1772 to 1799. Landscapes of country villas on the waterside planted with willow trees are frequently found on Chinese porcelain (see, for instance, plates 252 and 253 and W. G. Gulland  Chinese Porcelain, volume 1, London, 1902), but as far as I know the particular design where the villa is connected by a bridge with a water-pavilion, and a person with a raised stick is pursuing two others crossing that bridge, has not yet been found on purely Chinese porcelain. Since, however a bridge being crossed by two friends followed by a page carrying aseven-stringed lute (the favorite musical instrument of the literati; cf. Dr. R. H. van Gulik  The Lore of the Chinese Lute, Monumenta  Nipponica

Low-quality 'misty' Nankin ware

Monographs,  Sophia University, Tokyo, 1940) is a common Chinese motif, I suspect that an English designer mistook the lute for a stick or a sword, which gave rise to the ‘legend’ concerning the pattern. Bernard Watney aptly summarizes the situation in his English Blue and White Porcelain of the Eighteenth Century (London, 1963, p. 113): ‘The willow pattern was not really an original Caughley chinoiserie, but merely the crystallization of a number of similar transfers used at the English porcelain factories from about 1760. This romantic vision of Cathay gained full popularity in its final form as a result of the mass production of cheap earthenware by Staffordshire potteries in the nineteenth century. The creation of the suitable legend heightened the appeal and ensured its continuity.’ I may add that that ‘legend’ about the mandarin’s daughter who fell in love with her father’s poor secretary…bears the hallmark of the pseudo–Oriental romanticism popular in England and Western Europe during the second half of the eighteenth century; a lengthy version, complete with amatory verse, may be found in C. A. S. Williams Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives, Shanghai, 1932, s. v. willow. After the English-made Willow Pattern ware had been sent to China, Chinese potters imitated it for re-export to the West, laboriously copying with their brushes the English transfer-printed design. ‘The best-known Chinese porcelain with Willow decoration is the blue-and-white Canton or ‘Nankin’ ware, a utility ware of the early 19th century (or earlier) made for export. It is often thickly potted, sometimes even clumsy, and has been made continuously ever since its introduction. It was and still is made in three qualities; the highest quality having sharply distinct brushwork and dark blue, while the lowest quality has the familiar misty blue outline. This ware was very exactly copied in England by Josiah Spode II for export to Persia (1810-1815). Nankin Willow ware is quaint and often very charming and is still sought by discriminating people.’ (Quoted from F. St George Spendlove’s article ‘The Willow Pattern: English and Chinese.” in Far Eastern Ceramic Bulletin, vol. VIII, and oh. 1, Boston, 1956.)”

About Jan

I have a background in ceramics, graphic design and journalism.
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