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Jewish World Review May 28, 2003 / 26 Iyar, 5763

Anita Gold

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Consumer Reports

Blue Willow
lovers romance | Q. My great aunt left us (my sister and I) several boxes of china in the Blue Willow pattern. Can you tell us anything about such pieces in this pattern, and how we can find out their value? Vivian Carson, Decatur, IL

A. The willow pattern is one of the most popular and beloved decorative designs ever to grace table china. It pictures a Chinese landscape with exotic gardens, pagodas, a pair of mystical birds, and three quaint figures on an oriental bridge arched over a waterway. A wind-swept willow tree, among other fruit-laden trees, and a Chinese gondolier poling a boat may complete the picture, although the English pottery houses that produced the willow pattern showed variations in the design.

The earlier pieces can be recognized by the figures on the bridge, and an inner decorative border as well as an outer one on the plates. Later 19th century examples usually show no figures, and the plates do not have the inner border. Then too, the early china was always heavier then the later ware, and the design was always blue. Later examples were produced in other colors as well.

The design was put on the china by a process called "transfer printing," with the pattern first being deeply engraved on a copper plate, then with the aid of metallic inks, were ground in oil and printed on strong tissue. This tissue, in turn, was applied to the earthenware in a wet state, thus transferring the decoration to the china. If you look closely at the borders on these old plates and platters, you often can see where the pattern was cut off by the impression of the inked tissues in sections on the china, which adds to its charm. However, aside from its beauty, the most charming thing about the Blue Willow pattern is its bittersweet legend, transferred below.

The Legend of the Blue Willow

Once upon a time there was a rich mandarin who lived in a large, splendid house with his only daughter, Koong-se. One day the mandarin decided to retire from business, so he brought his secretary, Chang, to his home to put his accounts in order.

Upon meeting, Chang and Koong-se fell hopelessly in love. This angered the mandarin, and the couple was forced to meet in secret, with the help of Koong-se's maid. When the mandarin learned of their rendezvous, he built a high wall of wood at the water's edge to prevent Chang from coming to the house.

And he dismissed the maid and built for his daughter an elaborate suite of apartments that jutted over the water, where she could live under his constant watchful gaze. Soon afterward, the mandarin betrothed Koong-se to Ta-jin, a wealthy nobleman and scholar.

The wedding was to take place at "the fortunate age of the moon, when the peach tree would blossom in the spring and the willow blossoms dropped to the ground." Koong-se was broken-hearted, but one night while the mandarin and Ta-jin were feasting, Chang came to the house in disguise. Upon recognizing him, Koong-se quickly snatched up the box of jewels that Ta-jin had given her and fled with Chang across the bridge. The mandarin caught sight of the lovers during the crossing and ran after them to prevent their going.

Somehow the star-crossed couple escaped, but because of the furious rage of Ta-jin, they had to settle on a faraway island, where Chang cultivated a lovely garden and wrote a book on agriculture, which became famous. Through this book, Ta-jin discovered the couple's whereabouts and set out by boat to slay Chang and capture Koong-se.

When he reached the island, he did kill Chang but poor Koong-se, in despair, fled to her apartments, set them on fire, and perished in the flames. The gods enraged at Ta-jin, cursed him with an incurable disease and transformed Chang and lovely Koong-se into a pair of immortal turtledoves, the symbol of constancy.

Although It was Thomas Turner who first originated and introduced the Blue Willow pattern in 1780 at the Caughley Pottery Works in England, many other famous English pottery houses (such as Spode, Minton, Adams, Davenport, and Wedgwood, produced Blue Willow ware too. No other design was more copied and reproduced, not only by the English factories, but by the German, Japanese, and American factories as well. The pattern still is being produced today and seems as popular now as during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Especially desirable are the miniature tea and toy sets, as well as a porcelain toaster decorated with the blue willow design that, being extremely rare and desirable, commands a four-figure sum which ain't exactly breadcrumbs.

A history of the Blue Willow pattern along with descriptions of the many border and center patterns of this china, can be found with marks, dates, and over 400 pieces pictured in color ranging from plates to pitchers to vases to platters, and much more, in "Blue Willow - An Identification and Value Guide - Revised 2nd Edition with Updated Values" by Mary Frank Gaston, available in a large 192-page edition, for $17.95 postpaid from Collector Books, P. O. Box 3009, Paducah, KY 42002-3009. Or phone (800) 626-5420 toll free to order.

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Anita Gold has been writing this column for over 30 years. To comment or ask a question, please click here.


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04/22/03: Identify Authenticity and Value
04/15/03: Patriotic Songs and Memories of Long Ago Wars
04/08/03: Restore Grandmother's jewelry and memories

2003, Anita Gold