Learn more about the classic design found in kitchens, diners and castles around the world
One of my first introductions into the the antique world was a fascination with my Aunt Jill’s blue willow. She told me the story of the star crossed lovers and told me that most blue willow had three men on a bridge but if you find a piece with only two men, it was very valuable. NOPE!
But the more you know, the more you appreciate. So here is the really interesting and true story of Blue Willow. It begins in the late 13th Century during the reign of Kubla Khan known as the Yuan Dynasty. A trader from Persia, now Iran brings pottery with deep cobalt blue into China and it is admired but they are unable to copy it because they do not possess the cobalt ore necessary. And so one of the first global chain import routes is formed. China will go on to import Cobalt from other regions as well because in the mountains near Jingdezhen and the unique clay found there coupled with the dragon kilns that snake up the mountain, the Chinese have learned to fire white almost iridescent pottery. The blue-and-white porcelains of the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, made in Jingdezhen, China, represent the highest level of the ancient porcelain making handicraft in terms of both quality and volume and represent one of the most influential aspects of human cultural heritage known.
In Europe, people are eating off of pewter or wood plates. If they have crockery at all it is made with a lead glaze which gives it a dark grey brown finish. Small windows let in little light and dining experience even in daylight was a dark. This changed in 1602 when the Dutch East India Company, the world’s first formally listed public company was formed to bring spices to market from the East. When the traders saw this light yet sturdy pottery they took a chance on making their fortunes in the auction houses of Amsterdam, where goods from the unloading ships would be put up for sale immediately upon their arrival. From 1602 to 1682, at least 16 million pieces of Chinese export porcelain were transported around the world by Dutch merchant ships. Eventually word of the mad crushes at the auction houses made it to England and traders were dispatched to Amsterdam to see what it was all about. Meanwhile the ceramicists of Holland were busy trying to copy the imported goods. They at first copied the Chinese designs and then created their own. This pottery is known as Delft- but this is a story for a different day..
The English tried and failed to produce the white china but succeeded in the 18th C. By then the British fever for white china and moreover blue and white was at a fever pitch. People waited a year for an imported punch bowl or tureen. Prices were through the roof and families actually bankrupted themselves buying the latest status symbol. The English potteries were losing out to importers. And so in 1780 Thomas Turner designed what he imagined a Chinese scene to look like complete with fret work fences, pagodas, boats, bridges, pavilions, willow trees and swallows. It would be engraved onto a copper plate and finally not produced in his factory but at the factory of Josiah Spode. Even Thomas Minton got in on the fever first managing Spode then striking out on his own.
The Blue Willow design by Thomas Turner was eventually produced in over 800 factories throughout England. The process is not a simple one. First the white pottery must be almost flawless. Then the design is engraved onto a copper plate which is heated and the ink applied and scraped off repeatedly while hot to fill the fine lines of the this complicated design. Then paper was applied to create the “transfer”. It was cooled and put through a press and delicately removed and cut until the design could be fitted on anything from a plate to a cup. The transfer is then placed on the pottery- with precision and lined up then hand ground with soft soap and pestle to create the design. This required thousands of artisans across England and it was the care and precision that created the differences in price and quantity even in this subset. Fine intricate patterns were desired by some while other makers preferred the flow blue look- using more cobalt which tended to spread during firing because to them it was more reminiscent of the original Chinese examples.
At some point, in order to stand out in “catalogues” and department stores which were now where you went to buy your wares- the story of Chang, the humble accountant and Koong-se the daughter of the wealthy merchant who plans to marry her off to a wealthy colleague comes to play. The story is apocryphal, it does not exist in any Chinese literature and was purely Victorian hype. It has stayed the test of time as you can still find you-tube videos of antique collectors eagerly telling the tale of the pottery.
The pottery also was changed by human events. Potteries shut down during war as men were needed to fight and some skilled workers did not return. Cobalt was restricted as it was needed for the war effort. Manufacturing became expensive and was eventually exported to Japan where the designs were changed whether there was permission to do so or not. The Americans made it as well. In fact my personal favorite besides the Ridgway version, is that of Buffalo Pottery who made it as a give away to accompany their soap products.
So in our search for the origins of Blue Willow we have seen the first global import market between Persia and China, the development of the largest public company in the world in the Dutch East India Company, and the creation of the knock-off and its changes over time. It tells the story of the times, the dark living in Europe- transformed by light and delicacy. The mad crush of trade and importation on Europe. I think seeing the Blue Willow collections in this light makes them even more attractive and I personally love the differences when collecting. You can see the imperfections from the transfer process, even some funky design decisions made with left over transfer paper. You can tell the pieces that were meant to make large complicated collections and those that were given away with soap. And you can see the cultural differences between those who relished their ability to produce a clean design and those who preferred the blurry line in a tribute to its origins.
Today, the Blue Willow is iconic in both England and the US. Aunt Bee used Blue Willow on The Andy Griffith Show. Even the Munsters sat down to dinner on Blue Willow. William Randolph Hearst had a special version made for his castle in San Simeon, CA with a gold rim. In the 1930’s, a grill plate or divided plate was made with three sections. It was sold to diners and restaurants and was the inspiration known as the Blue Plate Special, a well balanced yet affordable meal.
So to some the value is in the history. To some it is in the wide array of sizes, hues and objects that can be collected. For many, it is the chinoiserie design. There are even those of us that are comforted by its familiarity. Nothing is better in my house than a Blue Willow platter heaped high with fried chicken.
There is a lot of Blue Willow changing hands. It is very easy to compile a set of any size if you can mix and match. But if you are looking to match and not mix- the value goes up. 12 Ridgway plates or Allerton all made the same year and same size might be had for 300-350.00. Coffee pots, creamers, sugars, platters and covered dishes are harder to find and therefor more valuable and can go for over 600.00. Some collectors buy hundreds of pieces at 5.00 each and hope to make a score. Some people buy what they need to make up what they don’t have in another transfer pattern because one of the great benefits to Blue Willow is that is blends with other blue and white but is also a great stand alone. Price guides are available but I like to check out either Ruby Lane or the even better, Chairish where today there were 366 Blue Willow items including a meat strainer and a pate bowl. Covet!