Blue Willow

Blue and White Painted Scenery

A traditional Chinese Fairy Tale brought to you by QBO: Once there was a stern father who lived with his daughter in a pagoda beside an ancient apple tree. As the girl blossomed into a woman the father arranged to marry her off to a wealthy merchant. Alas, she had fallen in love with her father’s clerk so the young lovers had no choice but to run. With his men-at-arms in tow, the father pursued the defiant lovers across oceans, finally finding them in a cottage on a small island. Blinded by rage, the father moved to strike them down but the gods intervened, transforming the pair into birds who escaped into the sky. In some versions of the story the lovers are even executed, only becoming doves as they attain immortality. And thus Blue Willow china, which you will find at many, MANY Queen B Estate Sales, was created to immortalize this historic tale.

Only this is NOT a genuine Chinese folk tale; just the fact that frequently the characters are said to “live in a pagoda” (which is religious architecture, not a dwelling) is enough to tip you off that the story was made up by people from elsewhere in the world. And that elsewhere would be England.

Blue Willow is believed to have first been made in England in the late 1700s. Three men are alternately credited with the pattern: Josiah Spode at the Spode Company in Stoke-on Trent, or Thomas Turner at Caughley Pottery Works in Shropshire, or maybe John Turner at Caughley. It’s murky.

But that murk directly contributed to Blue Willow’s immortal popularity. Blue Willow was created when Chinoiserie was the rage in the west. People were mad for luxury goods from China, especially hand-painted blue and white porcelains with exotic landscapes and dream-like scenes of courtly life.

Dutch blue and white Delft pottery is based on Chinese porcelain and this is also around the time that the word “china” came to mean ceramics in the English language. In portraits of the wealthy, it was not uncommon to see blue and white china used as a status symbol. As you might imagine, the economic pressure on English ceramic makers was intense.

To compete with China, transferware was invented. The process uses engraved copper plates to print a design on paper. The designs are then transferred to pottery pieces to be glazed and fired, allowing mass production of pieces which previously could only be hand- painted. Like Blue Willow, the invention of transferware is credited to different people at different factories but the process allowed English manufacturers to cheaply imitate expensive Chinese wares. And, because thiswas before extensive copyright laws, many manufacturers copied the “Chinese” design. Many, MANY manufacturers – there have been 400 different Blue Willow producers in England and hundreds more worldwide!

Thus you’ll find Blue Willow in any shape, size and style you’d like, not to mention it being interpreted into fabric, stickers, mousepads and so much more. You’ll even find Blue Willow in black, red, pink, green, or brown. And, the high-end contemporary porcelain line “Calamityware” offers an homage to Blue Willow which populates the classic pagoda-dotted landscape with giant robots, flying monkeys, monsters and UFOs.

So, what about that myth of star-crossed lovers? Well, it seems to have been spun to add a bit of ‘Oriental gravitas’ to a mass- produced English product, but like the pattern, the story also became beloved, appearing in book, musical and play form. Feel the need for Blue Willow? Visit QBO!