As New Zealand’s Evening Post observed with accuracy in 1928:
The romance of two Chinese lovers, which is so quaintly pictured on willow pattern china, has greater world-wide interest attached to this design than to any other that has been evolved during the ages.
Willow pattern ware owes its colour and origins to the Muslim trade for blue-and-white ware that developed during the so-called Mongol Peace of the 1200s and 1300s. For world historian Robert Finlay, this blue-and-white ware is the world’s first global style, “a collective visual language” in ceramic art. Muslim merchants in China took advantage of technical improvements to Chinese porcelain to develop a highly irresistible—and highly profitable—trade good. Ships from the Middle East would bring cobalt oxide—huihui qing (Muslim blue)—‘over 6,000 kilometers’ to China in return for ‘customized wares manufactured in bulk at Jingdezhen for Islamic markets’. As a trade, it was ‘…unprecedented in world history.’ Blue-and-white ware was eventually exported throughout South East Asia and Africa along Indian Ocean trade networks.
The later vogue for porcelain, which reached Europe in the seventeenth century, begins with blue-and-white ware. Over a 200-year period from 1700, the Dutch imported about 43 million pieces of porcelain; other countries’ companies, at least 30 million.
Willow pattern was a design imagined in the British midlands—the particular design fantasy of one Thomas Minton (1765-1836), sometime in the 1780s. Its full development came somewhat later. Around 1790, Spode’s pottery manufactory in Stoke produced the first pieces combining the elements that subsequently became known as willow pattern. Its signature features came to include ‘a willow tree in the central position; three figures crossing a bridge, heading away from the main building; a zigzagging fence stretching across the foreground; and two birds hovering in the top center’. By 1814, such was the popularity of the design that many other manufacturers were copying it (fig 1).
Its particular appeal lay not just in the quality of the porcelain and the design, but in the story the design illustrated – a classic tale of two star-crossed lovers. While there are several variations, the basic plot is this: A loyal book-keeper Chang works for a powerful-yet-corrupt customs official whose years of graft are about to be exposed. The mandarin resigns. So does Chang who loyally destroys his master’s account books, only to be summarily dismissed by him. Meanwhile, Chang and the mandarin’s daughter, Koong-se, have fallen in love, meeting secretly under fruit trees. Enraged upon hearing this—for he has plans to marry Koong-se to a wealthy and elderly duke—the mandarin banishes Chang from the house. But through a ruse, Chang returns to escape with his lover on a junk, taking some of the mandarin’s treasures with him, too. The willow-pattern ware depicts the “chase” scene through the three figures on a bridge and the escape on the junk.
The two lovers live in a house built by Chang—their house is depicted in the top-left in willow-pattern ware. Soon, however, with all of the jewellery pawned off, Chang is forced to find money by other means. He writes a book on gardens, which earns him a growing reputation, but also the attention of the mandarin. The mandarin, still seething from Chang’s deceit and the loss of his daughter, orders soldiers to find his daughter and avenge her elopement. The soldiers kill Chang, while—in most stories, at least—Koong-se also dies, either at her own hand or the soldiers’. The gods pity them, and they are turned into turtle doves, which are depicted in the top of the plate.
For years, it was assumed the story came from China. Yet, in fact, it originated as a classic piece of orientalist fantasy in the factories of the British Midlands. It was part in parcel of the mania for all things Chinese which took hold of Britain from the 1760s and which continued with the emergence of a variety of Chinoiserie. From Winnipeg to Wellington, from Bombay to Ballarat, before governors and governesses, Māori chiefs and missionaries, Chinese gardens appeared at breakfast, dinner, and tea in a clockwork regularity of culinary colonial chinoiserie. The blue-and-white ware tea and dinner services presented a fancifully flimsy chinoiserie fantasy world, ‘of doll-like lovers, children, monkeys, and fishermen lolling about in gardens embraced by eternal spring’. Yet, willow-pattern ware—and its distinctive depiction of a blue Chinese garden scene on white background—became, as David Porter has written, ‘paradigmatic emblems of Englishness’.
Chinoiserie—a mania for all things Chinese
‘Eighteenth-century consumers in England were…infatuated with Chinese and Chinese-style goods, even as they were amused, perplexed, or troubled by the alien aesthetic sensibility these goods embodied.’ That visual style was, of course, not just limited to England. Chinoiserie came to denote “the European manifestation of … various styles with which are mixed rococo, baroque, gothick or any other European style it was felt was suitable.”
Willow pattern was woven into the very fabric of European culture in New Zealand, appearing on wallpaper, curtains, and becoming as English as tea—which of course had originated in China but which had nonetheless became a distinctively ‘English’ cultural activity. Everything in Aotearoa New Zealand, from plates and material culture and design to plays and music, drew on the willow pattern design.
Hawera’s Willow Pattern Garden
But perhaps the most fascinating manifestation of willow-pattern ware came in the form of its three-dimensional representation in garden form at King Edward Park, Hawera. Designed by Harry Beveridge, then Park Superintendent, the garden attempted to make in three-dimensions the design depicted on the willow-pattern plate (figs 2-3).
What is more, the garden was opened by the Republic of China Ambassador to New Zealand in 1968, and was used as an opportunity to attack the People’s Republic of China.
If you want to find out more about this, then go to:
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14601176.2015.1076664 or email the author, James Beattie: firstname.lastname@example.org. This blog quotes from J. Beattie, ‘China on a Plate: A Willow Pattern Garden Realised’, Studies of the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes 36, 1 (2016), pp. 17-31, republished in Gardens at the Frontier: New Methodological Perspectives on Garden History and Designed Landscapes (London: Routledge, 2018). Ed. J. Beattie.
 Evening Post, 11 August 1928, p. 20.
 Robert Finlay, “Pilgrim Art: The Culture of Porcelain in World History,” Journal of World History, Vol. 9, No. 2 (1998), p.187.
 Finlay, 155.
 Finlay, 168.
 John R. Haddad, ‘Imagined Journeys to a Distant Cathay: Constructing China with Ceramics, 1780-1920’, xli/1, 2007, p. 63.
 Haddad, 63.
 David Porter, Ideographia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), p. 135.
 David Porter, The Chinese Taste in Eighteenth-century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 4.
 Porter, The Chinese Taste in Eighteenth-century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 4.
 Oliver Impey, Chinoiserie: The Impact of Oriental Styles on Western Art and Decoration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 10.