By Michael McGrath
Willow Pattern tableware was, and still is to a lesser degree, a popular dinner service which most people will instantly recognise. It is a blue and white Chinoiserie design which did not originate in China at all, but had its origins in England in the 18th century. It was manufactured by a number of companies, mainly in the Staffordshire area of England and was becoming increasingly popular by the end of the 18th century.
The design was conjured up from a story of love, class difference and tragedy to make it saleable, essentially.
There are many versions of the story but the tale is of a rich Mandarin, his daughter, her lower-class lover and the Duke to whom she is betrothed in marriage.
The wealthy Mandarin lived in a lavish palace and had many employees, one of whom was Chang, who fell in love with his daughter Koong-see. The love affair was not permitted because he was of a lower social class and so he was dismissed by the Mandarin and banished from the palace.
The Mandarin built a large fence around his palace to keep the lovers apart. On the eve of the wedding, the powerful nobleman arrived at the palace by boat bearing jewels and expensive gifts. Meanwhile Chang disguised himself as a servant and sneaked into the palace unnoticed and was reunited with Koong-see. The lovers eloped taking the jewels and the expensive gifts with them. The Mandarin gave chase over a small bridge, holding a whip, but the lovers managed to escape using the Duke’s ship. They eventually landed on a secluded island where they lived there happily together for many years.
The Duke searched for them for all this time and eventually found them. He cruelly put them to death as he had been disgraced by the lovers when Koong-see had rejected him. The gods were saddened by the tragic and sad events and transformed the dead lovers in to a pair of doves so they could continue their life together.
The story is fanciful but those buying Willow Pattern dinner services in the 18th century bought into the story and purchased it in large quantities.
Ironically, the Chinese and Japanese copied the pattern and made their own versions of the tableware. All the elements of the story appear on the platter shown: the palace, the long fence, the ship, the bridge with the lovers and the Mandarin, the island and the pair of doves.
How much tableware made today has a story of such intrigue, love and tragedy?
Today such pieces are not expensive to buy and many pieces remain and can be bought at auctions, charity shops and antique shops.