Willow pattern plate (c) MOLA

Unearthing the history of Willow Pattern

MOLA team

As the world celebrates Chinese New Year, we talk to our Finds Specialists about the origins of British obsession with Chinese-inspired Willow Pattern.

During the 18th century, art and design in the form of silk, lacquerware and delicately painted porcelain began arriving in Britain from China. Britons became enamoured with the exotic aesthetic of what was considered a mysterious, far-away land.

The increasing demand for these Eastern goods led to the development of ‘Chinoiserie’, a desirable style which drew upon the imagery, patterns and textures of these imported goods. ‘Chinoiserie’ permeated many aspects of design, from crockery to wall coverings, furnishing to gardens and became an extraordinarily popular trend.

Pottery was an area where ‘Chinoiserie’ could be developed and marketed and mid-late 18th century saw the Willow Pattern emerge and begin its journey to becoming an iconic piece of ceramic design, one which is ubiquitous both in the archaeological record and even in many homes to this day. The most popular Willow Pattern was designed originally by either Minton or Josiah Spode I in the 1790’s, it drew on the motifs found across all manner of imported items from China. The Willow Pattern was a blue and white transfer-printed composite design which brought together Buddhist imagery, pagodas, landscapes, birds and trees from Chinese porcelain. The pattern is said to be woven around a romantic story of star-crossed lovers eloping together.

The pattern’s popularity was so enduring that by the Victorian period it had even become the subject of its own song:

‘Two pigeons flying high

Chinese vessel sailing by

Weeping willow hanging o’er

Bridge of three men maybe four

Chinese temples stand

Seem to take up all the land

Apple trees with apples on

A pretty fence to end my song’

To date, our archaeologists have excavated 6715 fragments of Chinese Porcelain from just over 500 sites and over 4463 fragments of Willow Pattern vessels from 235 sites in London alone.

  • Artefacts
  • Research

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