During the late 18th and early 19th century, the increase in industrialization and urbanization drove the demand for Chinese porcelain and all things Chinese (Pierson 2007: 88). This phenomenon came to be known as ‘Chinamania’ (Blaszczyk 2002: 6), and it was accompanied with the rise of the new middle class and a new consumer-oriented economy in Europe (Armitage and Roberts 2017: 6). In the United States, this phenomenon also signified a change in women’s identities and consumption patterns as women entered the market as cultural consumers (Blaszczyk 2009: 61). Blue and white Chinese porcelain were among the most coveted items of the period. In order to satisfy the growing market, Europe developed a unique thermal transfer printing method that resulted in a higher printing efficiency for porcelain designs (Hildyar 2009: 6). The invention of transferring prints to porcelain or pottery not only significantly reduced the cost of porcelain production but also reduced the amount of time spent hand painting the motif, which was a common technique used in China (Frelinghuysen 2013: 4). This resulted in rising competition between European pottery manufacturers, such as Wedgwood and Spode, and the Chinese ceramics traditionally imported and sold exclusively by the East India Companies (Crook 2016: 308). One of the most distinctive blue and white transfer printed designs created in Europe was the Blue Willow.
The Blue Willow design remains one of the most popular Chinoiserie design today and is being produced globally, including in China. The Blue Willow has come to represent something beyond porcelain; to many people in the West, it symbolizes China and the Chinese culture (O’Hara 1993: 421). Collectors today tend to reminisce about the Blue Willow legend that they were told as children (McClary 1982: 56). The Blue Willow has certain distinctive motifs that allow us to identify a piece of porcelain as a Blue Willow that are tied to the legend behind the plate. These crucial motifs include a pair of doves, a Chinese boat, a bridge with three or four men, a willow tree, pagodas, a river, and a crooked fence.
It is interesting to note that the original Blue Willow legend did not originate from China, but rather from the United Kingdom (O’Hara 1993: 421). Though the exact date and location varies among scholars, the general consensus on the date of original production falls sometime between 1760 to 1780 (O’Hara 1993: 421; Williams 1949: 129). It was believed that local engravers, such as Thomas Lucas and Thomas Minton, were inspired by Chinese materials and designs to produce Chinoiserie Chinese landscape design on European ceramics (Williams 1949: 129). The Chinoiserie wares they produced typically featured scenes such as pagodas and Chinese boats or junks. However, the design only took its final form in the 1780s under Spode ceramic company, founded by Josiah Spode (O’Hara 1993: 422).
Ceramics is by far the most abundant category of artifacts recovered in 19th- to 20th-century colonial Singapore sites. Unlike ceramics from earlier periods characterized by local, regionally and China made wares, in the colonial period there was an increase in the variety of imported wares. This included ceramics imported from Europe and Japan. The European ceramic assemblage in colonial Singapore consists mostly of transfer-printed porcelaneous wares (refer to PSGEP0216 or PSGEP0272). Other commonly used decorative techniques on European wares include sponge-printed, hand-painted, flow blue, and lustre-painted. At PSG, the total number of transfer-printed wares excavated is 512 (50.89 percent of the total number of European sherds). Among the Blue Willow ware excavated in PSG, the most common forms are shallow bowls with a slightly raised foot with the height of foot ranging from 0.1 centimeters to 0.2 centimeters (10.35 percent of the total number of the transfer printed wares). Two of the sherds were found with a manufacturer’s mark at the bottom of the base (refer to PSGEP0346 and PSGEP0347).
Armitage, John and Joanne Roberts. “Critical Luxury Studies: Defining a Field.” In Critical Luxury Studies: Art, Design, Media. ed. John Armitage. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017, pp. 1-24.
Blaszczyk, Regina Lee. Imaging Consumers: Design and Innovation from Wedgwood to Corning (Studies in Industry and Society). Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
Crook, Penny. “‘Home’-Made: Exploring the Quality of British Domestic Goods in Nineteenth-Century Urban Assemblages.” In The Importance of British Material Culture to Historical Archaeologists of Nineteenth Century, ed. Alasdair Brooks. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2016, pp. 305-334.
Frelinghuysen, Alice Cooney. American Porcelain, 1770–1920. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013.
O’Hara, Patricia. “‘The Willow Pattern That We Knew’: The Victorian Literature of Blue Willow.” Victorian Studies 36, no. 4, 1993: pp. 421–442.
Hildyar, Robin J. C. European Ceramics. London: V&A Publishing. 2009.
McClary, Ben Harris. “The Story of the Story: The Willow Pattern Plate in Children’s Literature.” Children’s Literature 10, 1982: pp. 56–69.
Pierson, Stacey. Collectors, Collections and Museums: The Field of Chinese Ceramics in Britain, 1560-1960. New York: Peter Lang, 2007.
Williams, Sydney B. Antique Blue & White Spode. London: B.T. Batsford, 1949.