With its bold and contrasting blue and white, the most recognizable pattern in chinaware is the Willow or Blue Willow pattern. The pattern has existed since the early 1800s, and famously has an origin story, making it one of the most sought-after patterns by collectors. Not just collectible, the Willow pattern, and other blue and white ware patterns represent several interesting aspects of British industrial and social history.
By the turn of the 18th century, blue and white porcelain was incredibly popular within England and the English East India Company imported thousands of wares from East Asia each year. At that time, the porcelain of China and Japan was preferred as they had perfected hard paste porcelain, whereas England produced only soft paste porcelain. The wares coming from East Asia contained Asian landscapes and scenes. As the 18th century wore on, English porcelain manufacturers began to be able to compete with the Asian wares and many created blue and white wares of their own, still containing East Asian landscapes and scenes, or rather the English artists’ interpretations of the East Asian artistic style giving rise to the term Chinoiserie.
The latter half of the 18th century also saw the rise of transferware, a process by which a pattern is created on a metal plate, covered with ink then tissue. The tissue takes in the ink, and then is put onto a piece of pottery, transferring the pattern. Transferware technology allowed for many pieces to be painted over the course of a day, rather than each one having to be painted by hand. Many colours were used in transferware such as green, brown and shades of purple and red, but blue seems to have been used the most often. Blue was popular as the cobalt in the ink would not fade even when fired at high temperatures and would almost fuse with the glaze. Known as underglaze wares, they were highly durable as the pattern would not wear with use. The transferware process allowed wares to be produced quickly, which in turn allowed for a drop in price. This, combined with high durability, made English manufactured wares competitive with the East Asian imports, and popular with the masses as well as the higher classes.
The most popular, and now most collectible pattern of blue and white ware is the Blue Willow. The creation of the pattern is credited to Thomas Minton, who was an engraver and artist around 1790, and sold his patterns to English china and porcelain manufacturers. A popular East Asian pattern, known as Pagoda, was popular at the time and is though to have been the inspiration for the Blue Willow pattern. Lacking from the Pagoda pattern is the iconic doves or love birds which are critical to the Blue Willow pattern, giving rise to the theory that the origin story of the Blue Willow pattern was created in England as a kind of marketing ploy.
Transferware, blue and white wares, especially the Blue Willow pattern, make up much of the BCM&CC’s china wares collection. Some of the Blue Willow pieces are highlighted in the slideshow above.