|By Larry LeMasters
For nearly 250 years, the Blue Willow pattern has remained the most widely recognized of all the transfer-printed tableware patterns of English ceramics.
Transfer-print or transfer ware is a style of ceramics that uses a transfer printed, decorative technique, which was developed in England in the mid-1700s around Staffordshire. Transfer ware begins with an engraved copper plate, which is used to print the pattern on tissue paper. The tissue paper then transfers the wet ink to the ceramic surface. The pottery piece is then fired in a low temperature kiln, fixing the transferred pattern. Transfer patters can be produced under or over glaze, but the under-printing method is more durable since the glaze protects the print. Prior to transfer printing, all ceramic ware was hand painted, a laborious and costly process. Transfer printing, developed at the time of the early Industrial Revolution, made ceramic ware affordable to the masses.
Designed two centuries ago, Willowware’s appeal has never diminished, thanks in a large part to its blend of classic and Asian elements — a willow tree, orange tree, pagoda-like buildings, three figures on a bridge, and two birds.
Although called “Blue Willow” because of its cobalt blue color on a white background, Willowware has been printed in several colors, including red and polychrome. The pattern has shown up on nearly all pottery forms, including Majolica, flow blue, and Staffordshire. And the popular Willow pattern has been replicated on many diverse non-ceramic items.
As with many popular collectibles, the exact birth of Blue Willow is debated. Many hold that Thomas Turner at Caughley in Shropshire, England, first created the pattern in 1779. Turner was supposedly copying Nanking (Chinese) patterns, which he sought to reproduce using a blue under-glaze design. The original Blue Willow copper plate was crafted by Thomas Minton and now, worn to the thinness of paper, is kept as a piece of English history at Coalport.
Another legend states that Spode first used the now famous Blue Willow pattern in its “canonical” willow pattern in 1784. Not long after Spode’s introduction of the pattern, ceramic makers (such as Adams, Wedgewood, Clews, Davenport, and Swansea) began producing Blue Willow ware. Many of these late 1700s to early 1800s pieces were designed with the popular fretted border and fence in the background.
Although Blue Willow’s precise heritage is in dispute, no one argues the romantic story that the pattern tells: “A rich Mandarin arranged a ’suitable’ marriage for his daughter Koon-see. When the Mandarin learned that his personal accountant Chang and Koon-see were in love and wished to marry, the Mandarin forbade the union and locked Koon-see away in a house by a lake. But Chang managed to find and free his love. When the Mandarin received this news, he and two of his men set out after the lovers and were in the process of crossing a bridge when they caught sight of the couple sailing away in a boat. Koon-see and Chang found a pagoda in which they hid, but the Mandarin, bent on vengeance, found their hiding place and burned it to the ground, killing his daughter and her lover. However, true love triumphed when the young lovers were transformed into birds, rose from the flames, and flew into eternity together.”
Don’t be fooled into believing the story is true. The story was the well-conceived advertising child of English potters, who wished to sell their wares to romantic spirits.
This made-up fable, based on elements of the design, helped boost Blue Willow into one of the most widely produced domestic china patterns of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in England, and it is still a popular pattern today. Still, it was a for-profit, Chinese tale born in England, and the closest the story ever got to being Chinese is when, following World War II, Chinese potteries exported Blue Willow ware to an unsuspecting world.
Collectors ignore the Chinese ware and seek genuine English pottery. And while some 19th century Blue Willow ware is available from time to time, the price, for quality pieces, is too costly for most collectors, who often seek 20th century Blue Willow ware since it is more affordable.
Twentieth century English manufacturers of Blue Willow transfer china include Crown Ducal, Enoch Wood, Royal Staffordshire, Royal Crownford, Alfred Meakin (Tunstall), Spode, Johnson Brothers, and Mason’s. However, not all English Willow ware is valuable. A Royal Wessex bread plate, marked “Royal Wessex Made in England” can still be purchased for around $15 on eBay.
One American importer that has always been collectible is Homer Laughlin. Vintage Laughlin Blue Willow plates often sell in the $275 range.
Traditionally, only plates have manufacturer’s marks, so cups, bowls, candlesticks, and other Blue Willow items are difficult if not impossible to date. Some pieces do include the country of origin on the bottom, but some do not. If a plate is marked, a collector may use the mark to trace manufacturer and, possibly, date of manufacture.
As with all collectibles, condition and rarity sets the price for Blue Willowware. But let the buyer beware: Blue Willow has never been out of production since its origin, so it is a field where considerable knowledge is desired. Also, some dealers call every china piece that is blue, white, and transferred “Blue Willow,” but unless it tells the love story of Koon-see and Chang, it isn’t truly Blue Willow.