Blue Willow, the cobalt blue patterned pottery featuring pagoda architecture, willow and conifer trees, boats, figures, and birds, has price points at both ends of the spectrum depending on age, object type, and maker.
The Blue Willow pattern has its origins in England, with obviously Asian roots. The pattern comes from a legend depicting a wealthy Chinese father who arranged for his daughter to marry a prestigious older man. However, the daughter ran away with a beloved younger man. Depending on the story version, she was pursued by her father or the other bridegroom. The pursuit ends with one or both of them being killed. The couple reunites in the afterlife when the gods transform them into a pair of turtle doves.
The Blue Willow pattern contains several components, not all of which may be present in every variation. The center of the design is usually a willow tree. Other features are a tea house, pavilion, orange tree, and a bridge. In addition, there is often a crewed boat to the left of the willow tree and another Asian building or tree in the background.
The legend components were integrated into the Blue Willow pattern in the mid-1700s in England, which also saw the popularity of transfer printing as an underglaze decoration. Transfer printing allowed the pattern to be reproduced more easily than individually hand-painting wares. In addition, the design printed in cobalt blue allowed it to withstand the high temperature of firing with a glaze over the top. Thomas Turner of Caughley Pottery, Staffordshire, was the first potter to do an underglaze Blue Willow print. Thomas Minton also created Blue Willow designs around that time. Lastly, the variation by the Spode factory became the most ubiquitous.
Blue Willow—The Highs
Blue Willow ceramics made early, in small quantities, and by high-end makers can all fetch top dollar and be found in museum collections. A single Staffordshire doll’s plate is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Victoria and Albert Museum has an example of Spode’s most common version of Blue Willow. While dinner plates were common, specialized serving pieces such as coolers, milk containers, and chestnut baskets were scarce. The Minton Blue Willow umbrella stand is hard to find in good condition, as it was often chipped by the canes and umbrellas inside. The Asian motifs of Blue Willow combine unusually with cattle or elephants on rare pieces. High-end manufacturer Tiffany & Co. partnered with Copeland to create the Blue Willow festooned Auld Lang Syne pattern in the late 19th century. Some of the pieces have the accompanying verse on the interior rim, “WELL TAK A CVP O’ KINDNESS YET FOR DAYS O’ AVLD LANG SYNE.” Aspects of the Blue Willow pattern have been repeated on a wide range of collectible 20th-century porcelain, most notably on the Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre line.
Blue Willow—The Lows
Blue Willow flooded the market from the 19th century onwards, so finding inexpensive examples today is not difficult. The ware was marketed through shops, catalogs, and even given as premiums with other purchases. In general, newer Blue Willow pieces are cheaper than older ones. Factories produced fine china in the 20th century with the Blue Willow motif. You can get a full Royal Doulton Booths Blue Willow china set for under $100. In addition, Japanese and American Blue Willow ware are less expensive than English examples. Japanese factories produced ample Blue Willow in the 20th century, so there are many inexpensive lots marked “Japan,” “Made in Occupied Japan,” or “Nippon.” The Buffalo Pottery Company of Buffalo, New York, was the first company in the United States to produce Blue Willow, and their pieces are common on the secondary market. Blue Willow objects amusingly specific to the 20th century, such as diner mugs, are hardy, inexpensive additions to any collection.
Tips for Blue Willow Collectors
Blue Willow collectors today can easily research marks and choose to focus on the high-end or low-end of the Blue Willow market. Much of early Blue Willow is not marked, but variations in patterns can give clues to the manufacturer. For example, pieces with the mark “England” date the pottery after 1890. English factories such as Wedgwood, Worcester, Minton, and Copeland all made their numbering and lettering systems for dating wares which you can cross-check online. Most collectors love the timeless quality of the story depicted in the cobalt blue hue, so even a single piece of Blue Willow is a lovely addition to any china cabinet.
To learn more about Blue Willow, check out:
Gaston, Mary Frank. Gaston’s Blue Willow: Third Edition. Paducah, KY, Collector Books, Schroder Publishing Co., Inc., 2004.
And read this book in our WorthPoint Library.
Amy E. W. Moyer is the Boston-based proprietor of Antmuffin: Art, Antiques & Collectibles. She has over 20 years of experience in the arts and a lifetime of experience in collecting. She holds a degree in Visual Art from Brown University and spent 10+ years working at major New England art museums before becoming an antique dealer. Visit www.antmuffin.com for details.
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