As a ceramics graduate I was somewhat surprised to discover my ignorance of the story of the Willow Pattern. I stumbled across the tale whilst carrying out my internship on the documentation of the pearlware collection at Temple Newsam. The now familiar blue and white Chinese scene, created by Josiah Spode in the late 18th century to imitate Oriental porcelain, proceeded to flood the market and appeared on a whole host of earthenware, from egg cups to potted meat dishes. The legend of the pattern had passed me by but fear not, I shall fill you in..
A Mandarin customs officer, who lived in the large two storey temple centre-right of the image, grew rich whilst his secretary Chang did all the work. Amongst rumours of bribery and corruption, the officer was granted retirement by the emperor, and he withdrew to his lovely house taking with him his secretary and Koong-se, his beautiful daughter. Chang and the Mandarin’s daughter soon fell in love and continued to meet in secret after Chang had finished the work and been dismissed. They knew their love could never be as they were from different classes and her father had forbidden their relationship.
The Mandarin imprisoned his daughter in the smaller house next to the main building, enforcing the separation with a fence to keep them apart, and then betrothed her to his wealthy duke friend Ta-Jin who came bearing a box of wedding jewels. Obviously ancient Chinese grooms and fathers-of-the-bride are no different from their modern Western counterparts, and they set about getting drunk before the nuptials. Taking their chance, Chang and Koong-se raced across the bridge to freedom, pursued by her whip-brandishing father. Evading him, they sailed on a boat to a far off island and settled there happily.
Luckily they had remembered to grab the box of jewels before their escape, which they sold, using the money to buy the island and build a home. Chang wrote a book on agriculture and gained a great reputation which sounds lovely, but unfortunately this success was to be his downfall. His fame led the angry jilted Ta-Jin straight to his door, who then had him arrested and killed. Koong-se was so distraught at the death of her partner that she ran to her home and set it alight, dying in the flames. Koong-se and Chang were reunited in death, transformed into the two doves which make the Willow pattern so distinctive, the fated lovers flying together for eternity; the willow tree at the heart of the pattern signifying sadness.
Blue and white transfer printed Chinoiserie was hugely popular from the moment it was manufactured, and though it may flit in and out of fashion it won’t go away. The Willow pattern has come to symbolise an entire era of British ceramic production. It still continues to inform and inspire. As in all contemporary art mediums, ceramicists draw inspiration from the past. Two relatively recent Leeds Museums and Galleries acquisitions which clearly demonstrate this are Robert Dawson’s plates, ‘Bridge’ and ‘Border’, from the After Willow series designed for Wedgwood in 1995.
Bridge and Border by Robert Dawson for Wedgewood, LEEAG.2006.13.1&2
These plates, which directly reference the pattern, reinterpret the familiar design and present it back to us in a fresh way, encouraging us to look again at the 18th century ware side by side with the new. Skewed and slanted, they could be dismissed as mere copies of an original, but is that not what the first Willow pattern itself was created for – imitation and suggestion? To me, these pieces represent the importance of adding modern work to museum collections, they have such value in moving collections forward, challenging us to create new connections and references. Seeing them in the pottery store cabinets placed next to the 200 year old earthenware is so much more rewarding than only viewing them in a contemporary gallery setting with no reference to their origin.
I love the sentiment of the Willow and its enduring imagery, the timeless story. Once I knew its history, I connected to it and got so much more from it than taking it for face value. Now I know this tragic story, its easy to distinguish the pattern from other similar variants. Imagine my delight upon finding my own small piece of ceramic history in an antiques shop; a marked Middlesbrough Pottery Willow pattern plate, cracked and unwanted and mine for 25p. A real bargain.
By Helen Pickles, Ceramics Intern, Temple Newsam House