8th
Mar
2013

Posted in Reference

I've been eating and drinking from a set of willow pattern crockery all my life. That's not to say there haven't been a fair few breakages along the way, but it's ubiquity makes it so easy to replace. As with anything that is part of the daily fabric of life, it's easily overlooked and taken for granted, but take a look at that cup when you've finished your tea, or your plate once you've cleared it and start to notice and appreciate the detail. Willow pattern has been produced for a very long time and it has a story to tell.

As with all good stories it contains a good dose of love, loss, peril and tragedy. The central characters are a mandarin, his daughter Koong-se, his secretary Chang and Ta-jin, a noble warrior duke. The humble secretary, rather predictably, falls head over heels in love with the mandarin's daughter, who reciprocates his feelings. Father is not happy and dismisses Chang, building a high fence around his beautiful gardens, so that the would be lovers are separated. Chang sends Koong-se a sign to show that she's not forgotten, but meanwhile she discovers that it has been arranged for her to marry Ta-jin. She is understandably full of despair, especially when she discovers that Ta-jin is already on his way, laden with jewels to celebrate the betrothal. A banquet is held, after which a disguised Chang manages to mount a rescue. They almost get away, everyone being too drowsy with good food and wine to notice, but wouldn't you know it, the mandarin spots them right at the last minute and gives chase across the bridge. Now although they manage to escape, Koong-se has the jewels from Ta-jin with her, which she gives to Chang and the wily mandarin decides to use this as a handy reason to have Chang pursued and executed. Once again the young lovers outwit the mandarin and go to live on a distant island, but ultimately their luck runs out. Having been discovered, guards are sent to sort things out once and for all. They kill Chang and then Koong-se, with nothing left to live for, sets her house on fire and perishes in the blaze. The gods, moved by this touching display of love and devotion, immortalise the two of them as doves.

The story has its variations and similarly, there are subtle variations in the artwork on different makes of the crockery. Sometimes there are three figures crossing the bridge, sometimes four. Original examples of willow pattern are without the fruit tree at top right, the pair of doves or the bridge. Given that the central components of the story are missing on the original hand painted examples from China, the indication is that the story has its origins closer to home. Chinese craftsmen had been making blue and white oriental themed porcelains for export to Europe from the 15th century through to the 18th, but by the 1790s the East India Company had stopped importing Chinese porcelain to Britain because our pottery companies had begun to use transfer printing, which meant that pieces could be mass produced. Willow pattern was now accessible to the likes of you and me and its enduring appeal makes it the china pattern in longest continual production in history.

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