Willow Pattern China - Once upon a time, a young Chinese girl was betrothed by her mandarin father to a rich but elderly merchant. The girl, though, had lost her heart to the young man who worked as her father's secretary so, on the day appointed for her wedding, the young overs eloped


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Willow Pattern China


 Of all the chinoiserie designs that were produced in Britain in the middle years of the 18th century, none has had the same success and enduring appeal as Willow Pattern.

 Once upon a time, a young Chinese girl was betrothed by her mandarin father to a rich but elderly merchant. The girl, though, had lost her heart to the young man who worked as her father's secretary so, on the day appointed for her wedding, the young lovers eloped.

 They fled across a bridge, pursued by the girl's father, and escaped in a boat to the young man's island home. They were soon caught, and threatened with death for their crimes, but the gods took pity on them; the lovers were transformed into turtle-doves, and flew away together.

 This story - the details vary in the telling - is often presented as an ancient Chinese legend, but was invented around 1800 by the Regency equivalent of an adverting copywriter to explain the basic elements of an extremely successful design for decorating pottery, the Willow Pattern.

 Traditional Willow Pattern has a pagoda or tea house centre right, a bridge with two or three running figures on it on the left, a boat above the bridge, and, beyond that, the youth's 'island home'. Two doves fly above and in the foreground are two trees, one known as either a cherry, apple or orange, and a willow. A densely-patterned blue border surrounds the scene.


 Though many of the motifs were copied from Chinese painted porcelain, the Willow Pattern was essentially an English creation. Caughley works are credited with first using it in transfer-print form in 1780. The Spode factory produced a definitive version around 1810.

 At first, Willow Pattern was almost always seen on useful wares such as tea and dinner services, but later was applied to just about everything, from candleholders to cutlery handles and cow creamers. Potters elsewhere in Europe produced their own version of Willow Pattern, and in the 20th century, factories in the USA and Japan also copied it.

 The great majority of wares were transfer printed in blue, though prints in other colours, a few pieces painted in underglaze blue and polychrome versions of the pattern were also produced. None had the same commercial appeal as the basic blue and white.

 Willow Pattern remained the most popular ceramic decoration, ahead of the Italian Pattern and Asiatic Pheasant, well into the 20th century. It's still made today, and has also appeared on plastics, textiles, enamelled metal pots and pans, and glassware.

 The Willow Pattern has been, and still is, the most popular design ever used to decorate tableware but it has also been used on other kinds of china, such as vases, chamber pots and candlesticks. You may find slight variations in the Pattern on earlier pieces, particularly in the border design, although most 20thcentury pieces follow the familiar style.


 Willow Pattern wares from last century and this survive in huge numbers, and aren't at all expensive, unless they bear the mark of a rare or important maker or are in porcelain. They can turn up almost anywhere, including car boot and jumble sales, flea markets, junk shops, antiques fairs and markets, house sales - where you may find a complete service and, in the case of rarer items such as cow creamers, in auctions and specialist dealers.

 The pattern is widely collected, particularly in the United States, where there are several flourishing collectors' clubs. People tend to specialise in collecting a particular period or a particular type; just porcelain or bone china, say, or only serving dishes or tea sets. Some want only colours other than blue, and others concentrate on just one variant of the pattern.


 In the 19th century, more and more potteries bowed to public taste and produced versions of the pattern. Some of these were more or less straight lifts from Spode, but there was great cope for variation, in the number of birds and people shown, in the shape, size and position of the trees, pagoda and boat, and in the decorative border, which often incorporated non-oriental motifs. American collectors have identified nine border types and eleven broad categories of centre pattern, but even within these categories, variations of detail re possible. Because of these variations, it can be quite a challenge to build up a complete service of Willow Pattern ware.

 The exact details of the pattern can suggest the provenance of a plate, but not always; some factories used several versions of it. Variations aren't always helpful in dating a piece. Age is best judged by marks, if any, and the type of body and glaze used. Registered design marks may also be a help.

 Whatever you choose to collect, buy only wares in excellent to perfect condition, with no chips, cracks or missing pieces, particularly lids. Earthenware is particularly prone to damage, and also to crackling of the glaze and staining. The quality of the transfer printing varies, too. Look for good, clear prints with no obvious seams, and avoid any that are faint, muddy or smudged. A rich, deep colour and high glaze are desirable qualities.

 Read articles and references: Good standards are Warman's English & Continental Pottery & Porcelain (Susan and Al Bagdade), and Marks & Monograms on European and Oriental Pottery and Porcelain (William Chaffers).


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Warman's English & Continental Pottery & Porcelain (3rd Ed)
by Al Bagdade


Marks & Monograms on European and Oriental Pottery and Porcelain
by Wm. Chaffers


The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story
by Janet Gleeson