"Blue Willow" is probably the most popular decoration to ever land on a European or American table. The true story of "Willow Ware" is almost as interesting as the legends attached to it. Let's take a look at both.
In mid-18th century England, during the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, businesses were looking for ways to produce economical goods by mechanical processes. Probably used first on decorated "Battersea" enamel boxes, the century old technique of "transferring" a pigmented impression from an engraved metal plate onto paper now became available for ceramics. Until then, the only means known to the potter for decorating his wares was by laborious hand-painting. On July 27, 1756, engraver John Sadler, and his partner, (potter?) Guy Green, reported that within six hours they produced "twelve hundred earthenware tiles, neater and better than one hundred skillful pot painters could have painted in the like space of time."
In 1775, pioneer engraver Robert Hancock joined Thomas Turner at his Caughley Pottery in Shropshire, England, and they began producing "transferware," which they called "Salopian." It was mostly printed in blue. For, in those days, cobalt (blue) oxide was the only color that could be applied with success to biscuit ware before "glazing." High firing "glost kilns" that fused the pottery's protective glaze, broke down most other colors. Shortly thereafter, a gifted apprentice joined Hancock and Turner at Caughley. The young engraver/potter, Thomas Minton, who would go on to the found "Minton Pottery" (1796-today), was working with a new technology that could print repeatable blue patterns on pots before glazing.
He was undoubtedly aware of strong demand for exotic goods from the Far East, including the beautiful blue pottery exported from Canton and Nanking. Result-Minton produced an imitation Chinese pattern with pagodas, weeping willows, rivers, bridges, and flying birds-the first Blue Willow Ware. The pattern would prove so popular it would be copied in a dozen countries by hundreds of different manufacturers.
Even the Chinese copied it in their hand-painted decoration. Perhaps Minton's design was influenced by the legends that still surround Blue Willow today. One thing is certain. For two hundred years, children from all over the world have been coaxed into eating their vegetables, by mothers promising to tell them a story-that of a pair of hopeless young lovers turned into birds so they might remain happy together throughout eternity.
"So she tells me a legend centuries old
Of a Mandarin rich in lands and gold,
Of Koong-Shee fair and Chang the good,
Who loved each other as lovers should.
How they hid in the gardener's hut awhile,
Then fled away to the beautiful isle.
Though a cruel father pursued them there,
And would have killed the hopeless pair,
But kindly power, by pity stirred,
Changed each into a beautiful bird.
Here is the orange tree where they talked,
Here they are running away,
And over all at the top you see,
The birds making love alway(s)."
Willow Ware is available in a wide range of patterns, makers-most identifiable by mark, styles, and periods-running from 1780 to wares produced today. Later pieces should only be purchased in excellent condition. Old Blue Willow is a prudent investment today as it is scoffed at by many dealers unaware of its important place in history.