I’ve been surrounded by blue and white china my whole life. Mum is a massive fan – the kitchen has always been packed with jugs, tureens, plates, dishes, and more, sometimes chipped but always loved. Thinking on it, it has been a massive influence on me, the idea that something utilitarian (a plate) can also have aesthetic value. This was drilled into me at an early age when I used to have to eat my food to see which Peter Rabbit plate I had. Then there’s The Dining Room Shop – Mum’s shop – which has always had gorgeous stuff – some really quite rare and beautiful (I’ve always liked the old Wedgwood, personally, especially the quite plain Jacobean (?) stuff).
Nowadays it’s a sort of collective term for knock-offs – usually transfers – of various other patterns. But Willow Pattern is named after an original Chinese design, first engraved by Thomas Minton in 1780. He was then followed by Royal Worcester, Spode, Adams, Wedgwood, the whole gang (Burgess and Leigh’s modern Willow has been in continuous production since 1922).
There’s a story behind the original pattern, and it’s quite beautiful. Look at the plate first. It might look like a single image, but there’s a whole narrative happening inside it.
Once upon a time, there was a very grand Mandarin (that’s his palace under the big tree) who had a stunning daughter, Koong-se. She was so beautiful that he had knew he could do very well out of marrying her to the right person.
He also had a secretary, Chang. A personable young man who, while doing the Mandarin’s acccounts, full head over heels with Koong-se, and she with him. It was proper love too. Not an infatuation but an all-consuming need. When he found out, the Mandarin was livid. How could this lowly secretary ever dream he was suitable for his daughter? Something had to be done.
Poor Chang was banished, and a huge fence was build around the gardens of the Mandarin’s palace – you can see it at the bottom of the dish – so that Chang could not get in, and Koong-se was trapped inside, a bird in a gilded cage.
One day she was standing at the water’s edge when she saw something in the water – a shell, with tiny little sails on it. She picked it out of the water and found inside a poem, and bead that she had given her lover. Chang was outside, and he still loved her.
But then – terrible news – the Mandarin came in to tell her that he had found a suitable match. Ta-jin, a powerful warrior Duke. Not only that, but he was on his way to meet his betrothed, with loads of jewels for her (that’s him on the boat on the left hand side, making his way to the palace).
Chang had a plan though. Disguised as a servant, he snuck in to that night’s banquet, and up to Koong-se’s room. They kissed and decided to make a break for it. The Mandarin and Ta-Jin had drunk themselves into a stupor, and the two lovers quietly crept out. But just as they were leaving, the Mandarin woke up and tore after them (that’s him chasing them over the bridge – she’s holding jewels and I think the Mandarin has a whip).
They just managed to escape, and hid with a maid who the Magistrate had already fired for conspiring with the lovers. Koong-se had given the casket of jewels to Chang, so the Mandarin, who was also a magistrate, swore that he would use the jewels as a pretext to execute Chang as a thief when he caught him.
One night the Mandarin’s spies reported that a man was hiding in a house by the river (on the plate it’s just behind the boat) and the Mandarin’s guards raided the house. But Chang had jumped into the ragging torrent and Koong-se thought that he had drowned.
Some days later the guards returned to search the house again. While Koong-se’s maid talked to them, Chang came by boat to the window and took Koong-se away to safety.
They settled on a distant island, and over the years Chang became famous for his writings. This was to prove his undoing. The Mandarin heard about him and sent guards to destroy him. Chang was put to the sword and Koong-se set fire to the house while she was still inside.
The two birds on that plate? The gods, touched by their love, immortalised them as two beautiful doves.
There’s another story to the plate – a secret Shaolin legend.The Shaolin Monastery is burned by the Imperial troops of the Manchu rulers, called invaders by Chinese nationalist and later communist factions. Souls of the dead monks take a boat to the isle of the Blest. On the bridge are three Buddha awaiting the dead souls: Sakyamuni, the Buddha of the Past; Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future; and, Amitabha, the Ruler of the Western Paradise. Beyond them is the City of Willows – Buddhist Heaven. The doves are the monks’ souls on the journey from human to immortal life.
[I might get Mum to check this - oh, and with all fables and legends, there's always another version, so apologies if this isn't the one you know]