Anne here. Occasionally I post photos of food on FaceBook or my blog, and often it’s displayed on this little plate — an old willow pattern plate. It has a tiny chip but I don't care — it's one of my favorite plates. I bought it years ago from a charity shop when I was a student. I love old crockery and all my dishes back then were mismatched, but each was beautiful in its own right. But the willow pattern plates were always my favorites.
I have memories of my grandmother serving up a roast dinner with vegetables on a big old willow-pattern platter, and I think she also had a willow pattern soup tureen and also some cups and saucers. I don't have any of those, only my op-shop (charity shop) plates and this lovely jug and sugar bowl set that I was given for a birthday present one year.
But I've learned that I'm not the only one who has a deep fondness for the willow pattern design. Last time I posted a photo of my chipped plate on FB I said I knew it was chipped but I wasn't going to throw it out — and I got quite a reaction — most agreeing that I shouldn't throw away such a lovely plate.
Willow pattern plates have a long history. Before Marco Polo returned from China, fine porcelain was unknown in Europe. In the middle ages dinner was likely to be served on a trencher of bread or in a wooden bowl. The juices soaked into the bread, which was either eaten or given to the poor. Later the trenchers were mostly wood. The modern cheese board is probably a relation of the medieval trencher.
Pottery dishes were heavy and relatively thick — think of the hand-made pottery dishes people make today. They were easily broken. The plates and bowls of the rich were mostly metal — gold or silver or even pewter.
After Marco Polo returned from China and trading became established between China and Europe, European potters became obsessed with finding the secret to this fine, delicate, strong and beautiful porcelain. Porcelain was the italian word for it. Later, as more and more imports came from China, these porcelain dishes were simply called "china ware" or "china".
European potters tried all kinds of methods to imitate the fine Chinese porcelain — mixing various things into clay to try to achieve the same delicacy and strength of the Chinese product. They tried mixing ash, and various minerals. The English attempt to strengthen clay with ground-up bones led to the creation of what we call "bone china" and the use of several kinds of ground-up stone led to that which we call "stoneware." They were finer and stronger, but heavy, and none of them was as fine, as strong and as delicate — and translucent— as porcelain.
The key to the Chinese porcelain was kaolin clay — a special clay found in only a few places. One of those places turned out to be in Germany, not far from the Meissen pottery, and German scientists developed the first successful imitations of fine china. At the same time, Father François Xavier d'Entrecolles, a French Jesuit priest resident in China sent home a long and very detailed description of the Chinese methods of production. This was published in 1712 and it set European potters on the right track. His work has been referred to as an early form of industrial espionage: whether it was, or whether it was simply scientific curiosity I'll leave it to you to decide.
What is clear is that as well as Chinese methods of production, Europeans imitated Chinese design, and of all the many motifs and patterns they copied and adapted, the blue and white Willow Pattern is undoubtedly the most famous. There are many different versions of it, and a few variations on the story it supposedly illustrates. A young Chinese girl fell in love with a poor man, but her rich father didn't approve. He wanted her to marry a rich aristocrat. The lovers ran away across the bridge, the father pursued them, they escaped, but some time later they were discovered and killed. A cautionary tale, rather than a romance.
Englishman Thomas Minton is said to have designed the original Willow Pattern plate. He combined various Chinese elements, and it's at this time — 1780 — that the story was probably invented. It doesn't seem to be an actual Chinese design or story and it doesn't seem to appear on any earlier Chinese imports. He designed it for for Thomas Turner of Caughley, Shropshire, and it was soon copied by other English potteries; Royal Worcester, Spode, Adams, Wedgwood, Davenport, Clews, Leeds and Swansea were among the earliest.
Blue and white was a traditional and popular color scheme, in China as well as Europe, because although porcelain when fired came out a beautiful white, it had to be fired at such a high temperature that the only pigment that would reliably withstand the high furnace temperatures was cobalt blue, formed with cobalt oxide — mined in Persia and imported into China. For other colors you had to fire the pot, first at the high temperatures required for porcelain, then reglaze it and add the other colors in a second layer, then fire the pots again at a lower temperature, so blue and white was also cheaper and easier to produce.
It was hugely popular, not only for Chinese designs, but also with Italian scenes. The item above isn't a gravy boat, though you may be forgiven for thinking it. It's a "ladies urinal" also called a "bourdeloue" — very popular and useful in the 18th century with those enormous dresses. And if you want more detail about how it was used, including a painting of a woman in full dress using one, click here. (The word makes me wonder whether that's where we get the slang word for a toilet used by women in the UK and Australia — the loo.)
Blue and white is such a pretty combination, it's no wonder it was so popular then, and has remained so ever since. The cups and saucers on the right are some old ones from my other grandmother — and even though they were made in England, you can see how the Chinese style still prevailed — no handles.
So what about you — do you like the willow pattern design? Do you have any willow pattern plates or dishes? Remember them from your childhood? And do you have any special plates or dishes you treasure?