The ‘willow pattern’ design was first brought to European attention in the 18th century through the import of fine Ch’ien-lung (Quianlong) porcelains such as the above ‘biscuit back’ oblong dish. The design’s origin is buried deep in Chinese folklore but classically incorporates figures on a bridge in an imagined oriental landscape of a lake or inlet with pagoda style oriental buildings prominent.
The import of such fine blue and white porcelains was to have a major impact on pottery making both in continental Europe and in England, leading notably to the development of tin glazed delft wares with blue and white and on occasions polychrome brushwork. It was in part also the harbinger of a growing fascination with the Far East seen as the 18th century progressed in English furniture and decor popular in fashionable circles.
This visual dialogue in ceramics continued strongly into the 19th century in the mass market. This saw the manufacture of hugely popular and diverse transfer printed bone china wares, developed initially by engravers at the Spode works in Stoke on Trent in the late 18th century. Such wares became almost ubiquitous and alongside Italianate classical designs (see base of blog) dominated volume transfer printed tableware output in Victorian England.
Whilst the willow tree was but one of many motifs that featured, the latter became somewhat of a leitmotif for the oriental in the mass market. As to production techniques, in the Chinese context such wares were hand painted with at times an almost production line division of labour each worker adding a particular design element. As far as I am aware no individual designer has ever been identified and indeed the treatment and positioning of classical elements varied considerably in Ch’ien-lung wares.
In the English context, whilst some of the earliest soft paste blue and white porcelains continued to be hand decorated, engraved and transfer printed pattern designs were soon introduced. In the late 18th century Spode workshop context the names of individual design engravers is recorded.
Is this truly original design when so clearly influenced by established precursors? As far as making is concerned, whilst the Ch’ien-lung ‘originals’ appear individual were their methods so very different from the volume manufacturing workshops of 19th century Stoke?