Blue Willow China is delicate, classic and tells a mythical love story. The Blue Willow pattern is a blue-and-white transfer design that features a collection of engraved drawings that illustrate a Chinese fable about two lovers from different stations in life. The design usually includes a bridge with people on it, a boat with a person in it, a willow tree, an orange or an apple tree, a fence, two birds and a tea house or pagoda. Different manufacturers adapted these design elements and used several distinctive borders.
Blue Willow Fabled Beginnings
The Blue Willow pattern combines design elements influenced by Chinese export porcelain, which was popular in early-18th century England. Many attribute the now-famous “Willow Legend” to Josiah Spode, who created it as a promotional tool to market Chinese-style tableware around 1790. Other English china manufacturers soon produced new interpretations of the fable, and the pattern grew in popularity. Eventually over 500 companies worldwide offered some version of Willow.
Printing and Production
English china manufacturers produced Blue Willow through a process called transfer printing. The printers inked an engraved plate, transferred the image to a thin sheet of tissue, and applied it to the surface of a piece of china as an underglaze. Cobalt blue holds up under high firing to preserve detailed designs. The technique works on porcelain, stoneware, ironstone and bone china. English and the Chinese companies produced most of the Blue Willow prior to the 20th century, when the United States and Japan began producing significant amounts of the pattern.
Understanding Registry Marks
Registry marks may help identify authentic Blue Willow pieces. An English maker’s mark shows the year, month and day a design was registered, along with the manufacturer. These elements were arranged in a symbol that can be deciphered using a registry mark guide, which can be found in print or online. Antique pieces prior to the 20th century do not include symbols for copyright, trademark or registered trademark. Terms like “dishwasher safe” or “ovenproof” place a particular piece in the modern era.
Original Design Elements
The number and arrangement of the traditional design elements in the Willow pattern help identify the manufacturer of authentic historical pieces. For example, the traditional Blue Willow pattern has three people on the bridge, one in a boat, two birds, a tea house, the willow and orange trees and a fence and is based on the original Spode design.
Variations on a Theme
Each manufacturer produced variations on the original Willow pattern. Booths Blue Willow has no fence, three branches on the right side of the willow and six on the left, with gold trim and the bow knot border. Burleigh Blue Willow has five people and no orange tree, with a scroll and floral design border. Mandarin Blue Willow has no bridge and one person in the boat with a dagger border. All these authentic versions demonstrate the frequent copying and sharing of designs by engravers prior to the introduction of patents and copyrights.
Look at the Border
Different manufacturers designed borders to surround their illustrations of the Blue Willow legend. Examples include the traditional border, the butterfly or Fitzhugh border, the bow knot, the dagger or fleur-de-lis, the scroll and flower, the floral, the pictorial, simple lines or the absence of a border. Using guidebooks or online resources, you can sometimes identify a manufacturer by the style of the border.
- Antique Marks: Antique Blue Willow
- New York University: Porcelain, The Willow Pattern, and Chinoiserie: Joseph J. Portanova, Ph.D
- International Willow Collectors: Frequently Asked Questions
- Real or Repro: Blue Transfer Ware
- Ruby Lane: Heritage Heirlooms: Blue Willow Part II, Manufacturers & Marks
- eBay: Collecting Buying and Selling Blue Willow China on eBay
Melanie Aves has more than 30 years writing experience. Aves coauthored four interior design color books, authored a book on Newport Beach, California, wrote newspaper features and currently writes monthly magazine features. She holds a Master of Arts degree, a certificate in interior design, and completed post-graduate studies in journalism.