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The Willow Pattern

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Two birds flying high,
A Chinese vessel, sailing by.
A bridge with three men, sometimes four,
A willow tree, hanging o’er.
A Chinese temple, there it stands,
Built upon the river sands.
An apple tree, with apples on,
A crooked fence to end my song.

As one of the most renowned and fascinating of romantic fables, with its Shakespearean overtones of doomed love and tragedy, the Willow Pattern story is universally familiar. This timeless tale of star-crossed lovers appeals to the imagination whilst the intricate and decorative Willow Pattern itself has been hugely popular for centuries.

This instantly recognisable pattern is a classic Chinese landscape design, the fundamentals of which include a weeping willow, pagodas, a crooked fence, a tree bearing fruit, three or four figures on a bridge, a boat and a pair of lovebirds forever kissing. Combining these elements, the long-established and poignant saga is revealed.

In a bygone age a wealthy and powerful Mandarin of the Chinese Empire lived with his lovely daughter Knoon-se in a grand palace surrounded by ornate, exotic flowers and trees. Chang, a low born but intelligent and personable young man, was employed as secretary to the Mandarin and fell hopelessly in love with the exquisite and captivating Knoon-se. Reciprocating his affections, Knoon-se met with Chang each evening beneath a weeping willow tree by the river.

The Mandarin learned of their trysts and, infuriated that his adored daughter had fallen in love with a commoner, dismissed Chang, banning him from the estate, while Knoon-se was imprisoned in a pavilion overlooking the river. He surrounded the palace grounds with a crooked fence and, against her wishes, arranged for Knoon-se to marry the warrior Duke Ta-jin. With no company apart from servants, Knoon-se befriended and fed many birds and, knowing that her wedding would take place once the fruit tree outside her window was in bloom, she stared desolately into the river, contemplating her isolation and despairing of her future without Chang.

The devoted Chang, unaware of Knoon-se’s approaching nuptials, also cared for and spoke with birds while dreaming of ways to contact his lost love. [Here, versions of the legend differ; as some say that] Chang sent a message to his beloved by fixing a sail to a shell and floating it down the river bearing a love poem, “As this boat sails to thee, so my thoughts tend“, which Knoon-se scooped from the river with her parasol. Her spirits lifted as she read his words and knew that Chang would come for her. During the hours of darkness she replied unseen, adding a burning incense stick to the shell and warning Chang to “Gather thy blossom, ‘ere it be stolen“. Knoon-se watched the tiny light until it disappeared downstream and prayed for rescue. [Other versions claim that the lovesick couple communicated using their feathered friends as go-betweens.]

The tree was heavy with bud and near to blossom as the Duke Ta-jin arrived amid great fanfare, accompanied by a huge retinue of servants. He presented his betrothed Knoon-se with a casket of r are and priceless jewels, but she could think of none other than Chang and gazed at her unwanted future husband with a heart of stone, her eyes dull with despair.

Nights of celebration and sumptuous banquets followed. Chang entered the palace grounds disguised as a servant and glimpsed the Mandarin and Duke through a window, both sated and asleep. Seizing the moment, he crept to the riverside apartment where Knoon-se languished alone. The lovers embraced with tears of joy and, pausing only to grab the casket of jewels, fled across the bridge to a boat that Chang had moored nearby in readiness.

Alas, a slight noise alerted the Mandarin and he gave chase.

[At the height of this daring adventure, the Willow Pattern depicts Knoon-se on the bridge holding the Staff of Virginity, followed by Chang bearing the box of jewels with the Mandarin in hot pursuit, brandishing a whip. When the fourth figure is shown in the Willow Pattern this represents the Duke, desperate to recapture his fleeing bride-to-be and her lover.]

Knoon-se and Chang sailed to a faraway land where they sold the jewels to purchase a small pagoda and lived in bliss, sharing the life they had yearned for through many seasons. [The Willow Pattern shows their distant pagoda surrounded by lush foliage.]

In a fit of vengeful spite, the Mandarin captured and caged all the birds in his gardens, as birdsong was anathema to his ears. Relentlessly he and the Duke sent spies and warriors on long and unsuccessful quests to find the couple. Ultimately the brooding Mandarin, obsessed by his lost daughter and thwarted at every turn, chanced upon a possible solution. He released all the birds and ordered his men to follow them as they flew away. The devoted birds, who had never forgotten Knoon-se or Chang, unwittingly led the evil army straight to their far off dwelling.

At the dead of night, murderous men surrounded the pagoda, setting it alight as Knoon-se and Chang slept. Tragically, the lovers perished in the flames. Revenge and bitterness had seemingly prevailed as the fire raged and engulfed all.

Cosmic winds howled as the ever-watchful gods took pity on the doomed lovers and blessed their undying devotion by granting them immortality. From the charred ruins of their home, the souls of Knoon-se and Chang soared into the sky as turtledoves and kissed again; beyond fear, beyond danger, forever free and symbolising eternal love.

The Legend of the Willow Pattern – as we know it – may have little substance as an ancient Chinese fable. An expert in Chinese History at Murdoch University in Western Australia suggests that the essence and outcome of our familiar version is at odds with imperial Chinese ethics and social order of the past. Differences of perception between East and West are illustrated here; as a similar Chinese allegory would be a cautionary tale of stupidity and deception – because Knoon-se disobeyed her father’s wishes. Thus, the classic Chinese concept would be that the lovers’ punishment was to see each other as mere birds for eternity, everlastingly tormented for their sins. By contrast, the ethos of our Western version is that love conquers all.

From behind the story of the Willow Pattern emerges a vivid kaleidoscope of history spanning several centuries. Graceful clipper ships (such as the Cutty Sark) sailed the high seas transpo rting precious cargo, great wars were fought and sinister plots hatched as merchants and banks grew rich on the profits of trade and exploitation. Ultimately, however, it all boils down to a cup of tea; for the drinking of tea was how it began and some argue that tea was the catalyst for the expansion of the British Empire.

The Chinese discovered the merits of drinking Tchai – infusions of tealeaves – in ancient times, and it was only in the early 17th century that intrepid Dutch and Portuguese voyagers explored the Far East and brought Oriental novelties, including tealeaves, home to Europe. Half a century later, in 1662, Charles II married the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza who introduced tea to the Royal Court. Imbibing tea was found to be uplifting to the spirits and in no time this pleasant brew became the height of fashion. Intellectuals would meet for discussions over a cup of tea and high society followed, adopting elaborate social rituals of tea drinking with attendant paraphernalia and affectation.

Conversely, this genteel pastime disguised a cynical agenda as the British East India Company traded opium produced in colonised India with China in exchange for tea, making fortunes as the “middle man”, culminating in the disastrous Opium Wars of 1839-42. John Barrow wrote in the Quarterly Magazine of 1836: “… it is a curious circumstance that we grow poppy in our Indian territories to poison the people of China in return for a wholesome beverage which they prepare almost exclusively for us”. Across the Atlantic, rebellion against taxes levied on tea ultimately led to the furious demonstration known as the “Boston Tea Party”, sowing the seeds of the American War of Independence.

So widespread was British passion for tea that it became a precious, glorified (and very overrated) commodity and, as such, a potent emblem of wealth and status – the hyping of which was encouraged to increase revenue. Early tea caddies, although proudly and prominently displayed, were universally fitted with locks and keys in order to deter butlers or maids from pilfering the treasured contents.

Simultaneously, a countrywide vogue for Chinoiserie flourished. To meet the ever-growing demand, the Chinese obligingly manufactured decorative porcelain services in traditional patterns, for bulk export to Britain along with the tea. Soon oriental tea services bearing typical elaborate, yet naïve patterns were de rigueur; but what to do if part of a valued Canton tea or dinner set was broken? Such an event was calamitous, as pieces were virtually irreplaceable, unless one was prepared to wait up to three whole years for an order to return from China. Faced with the unthinkable prospect of social humiliation, desperate society housewives turned to local potteries in the hope that they could replace matching pieces.

Pair of Wilton Ware pot pourris and Carlton Ware Kang Hsi NANKIN tea caddy
Pair of Wilton Ware pot pourris and Carlton Ware Kang Hsi NANKIN tea caddy

Some may be surprised to learn that our well-known rendition of the Willow Legend was invented by British porcelain manufacturers only around two hundred years ago as a clever promotional tool for the marketing of chinoise tableware. Thomas Turner at the Caughley works, Shropshire was the first to reproduce blue over white Chinese Nankin patterns on British porcelain in 1779. Other potters swiftly followed, such as Thomas Minton, but it is believed to be Josiah Spode who, inspired by various Chinese porcelain designs, developed the Willow Pattern in 1790.

Caughley Nankin Willow plate c.1870 and Spode Willow Pattern plate
Caughley Nankin Willow plate c.1870 and Spode Willow Pattern plate

There is apparently no Chinese design which contains all the features of the standard Willow Pattern; and it is also interesting to note that some early British versions of Chinese ceramic art were reproduced in pastel blues on white, as designers believed these pallid hues were the original colour scheme. Chinese patterns were, however, hand-painted while English versions were usually transfer-printed. In fact, exported blue over white Chinese porcelain was often faded due to being stored below in the ship’s bilge where it was subjected en voyage to the ravages of salt water, whereas the prized cargo of tea was secured safely above in the hold.

World expert on the Willow Pattern, Robert Copeland, reported that, during excavations at the Spode factory site in the 1970s, shards of Chinese pearlware porcelain were discovered, incorporated into the foundations of a wall. These shards depicted typical pagodas, trees and other elements of the [later] Willow Pattern, – adding substance to the claim that Josiah Spode borrowed features from not only “Mandarin” but “Forest Landscape” and other available Canton ware to create this unique panorama.

Fascination with the pattern and the story continued as people sought to read further significance into features of the scene. For instance, in his seminal article on the Willow Pattern for the now defunct “Antiques Collector” magazine, Copeland stated that, “Counting the oranges [or apples or pears – depending on which account one reads] on the trees is fruitless too (!) The size of the tree and so the number of oranges will vary according to the size of the item, while two engravers working at different times for the same manufacturer may introduce variations of detail like this.”

A century or so later Carlton Ware produced the first of its known WILLOW designs; a delightful Flow Blue version shown here on a small vessel.

Carlton Ware Flow Blue WILLOW tiny vessel
Carlton Ware Flow Blue WILLOW tiny vessel

During the Roaring Twenties, Carlton Ware typically defied convention by launching WILLOW in bright enamelled colours on white (2041), as well as on shimmering grounds of gilded orange (2841), red (2851) or pale blue (2352) lustre. Contemporary potteries continued the tradition, producing fine examples such as Crown Devon’s luminous Devon Lustrine version and its later design, “Pagoda“.

Carlton Ware WILLOW on white, orange lustre and pale blue lustre
Carlton Ware WILLOW on white, orange lustre and pale blue lustre


Pair of Crown Devon Lustrine Willow Pattern bowls and Chinese Panel vase
Pair of Crown Devon Lustrine Willow Pattern bowls and Chinese Panel vase

Throughout half a century, Carlton Ware variously incorporated rudiments of the Willow Pattern into specific designs such as “MIKADO” and “NEW MIKADO“, “TEMPLE“, “BARGE“, “CHINESE TEA GARDEN“, “CHINESE FIGURES” and “Mandarins Chatting“; for example “MIKADO” invariably includes a pair of kissing birds. In the 1950s, Carlton Ware designers reverted to a more traditional stance by offering an adaptation drawn in simple blue, green or maroon on white ground, no less attractive than its predecessors.

Carlton Ware WILLOW 1950's ginger jar in green and blue on white
Carlton Ware WILLOW 1950’s ginger jar in green and blue on white

Reflecting the optimism of a new century, potteries such as Carlton Ware, Crown Devon and Wedgwood enhanced this time-honoured landscape with an up-to-date flamboyance, celebrating the historic Willow Pattern whilst respectfully preserving its spirit or chi.

Crown Devon Pagoda and Carlton Ware WILLOW
Crown Devon Pagoda and Carlton Ware WILLOW

Few chinoise ceramic designs can be more charming than a fine specimen of legendary Willow Pattern, while its romantic story lingers in public consciousness and continues to enchant.

Carlton Ware MIKADO spill vase, Carlton Ware Flow Blue WILLOW vessel Crown Devon Pagoda vase & Carlton Ware WILLOW jug
Carlton Ware MIKADO spill vase, Carlton Ware Flow Blue WILLOW vessel Crown Devon Pagoda vase & Carlton Ware WILLOW jug

With grateful thanks to Aileen Kearns, Desmond Guilfoyle, Harvey Pettit, Ian Harwood and Jerome Wilson for advice and inspiration Photos of Carlton Ware WILLOW courtesy of Czes & Yvonne Kosnoiwski at Photos of Crown Devon pieces courtesy of Desmond Guilfoyle from his collection Photos of Carlton Ware Flow Blue vessel courtesy of Lynn Topaz Group photos of various pieces by Diana Kearns from her collection First published in the Carlton Ware Newsletter #24 by Ian Harwood & JeromeWilson, September 2005

A Short History of Carlton Ware

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