Inside our museum – The story of the Willow Pattern

Like many museums we are lucky to have some good examples of the much-loved willow pattern in our china and ceramics collection. The item featured here is a large meat platter.

The history of The Willow Pattern: The Chinese invented porcelain more than 2000 years ago, and finely decorated examples remained one of their main exports until well into the 18th century. As large-scale potteries became established in Europe during the Industrial Revolution, many of them copied Chinese designs to show that they could be as good or better than the Chinese. Chinese designs became fashionable in Britain at the end of the 18th century and early 19th century thanks to the Prince Regent’s lavishly oriental Brighton Pavilion (designed by John Nash in 1815, its Chinese interiors were encased in a flamboyant and romantic Indian Mughal-style exterior).

The Willow Pattern is a by-product of this, designed in 1780 by Minton and intended to add a touch of Oriental magic to cheaper earthenware and thereby make it more widely available. The design was printed on a transfer which was applied to the plate before firing.

This meant that quite elaborate designs could be produced cheaply, and the same method is still in use today. (On older examples and ‘seconds’ you will often find spots on a plate where the transfer has slipped, creased or been badly joined up.) Although the most popular colour has always been blue, it was also available in green, pink and even brown, decorating a wide range of crockery.

This 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 Legend of the Willow Pattern: There was once a Mandarin who had a beautiful daughter, Koong-se. He employed a secretary, Chang who, while he was attending to his master’s accounts, fell in love with Koong-se, much to the anger of the Mandarin, who regarded the secretary as unworthy of his daughter.

The secretary was banished and a fence constructed around the gardens of the Mandarin’s estate so that Chang could not see his daughter and Koong-se could only walk in the gardens and to the water’s edge.One day a shell fitted with sails containing a poem, and a bead which Koong-se had given to Chang, floated to the water’s edge. Koong-se knew that her lover was not far away.

She was soon dismayed to learn that she had been betrothed to Ta-jin, a noble warrior Duke. She was full of despair when it was announced that her future husband, the noble Duke, was arriving, bearing a gift of jewels to celebrate his betrothal.However, after the banquet, borrowing the robes of a servant, Chang passed through the guests unseen and came to Koong-se’s room. They embraced and vowed to run away together.
The Mandarin, the Duke, the guests, and all the servants had drunk so much wine that the couple almost got away without detection, but Koong-se’s father saw her at the last minute and gave chase across the bridge.

The couple escaped and stayed with the maid that Koong-se’s father had dismissed for conspiring with the lovers. Koong-se had given the casket of jewels to Chang and the Mandarin, who was also a magistrate, swore that he would use the jewels as a pretext to execute Chang when he caught him. One night the Mandarin’s spies reported that a man was hiding in a house by the river and the Mandarin’s guards raided the house. But Chang had jumped into the ragging torrent and Koong-se thought that he had drowned.

Some days later the guards returned to search the house again. While Koong-se’s maid talked to them, Chang came by boat to the window and took Koong-se away to safety. They settled on a distant island, and over the years Chang became famous for his writings. This was to prove his undoing. The Mandarin heard about him and sent guards to destroy him.
Chang was put to the sword and Koong-se set fire to the house while she was still inside.

Thus they both perished and the gods, touched by their love, immortalised them as two doves, eternally flying together in the sky.

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