One of the things I collect is old plates, especially those with murals on them. I’m always on the lookout for certain patterns. The Blue Willow pattern is probably the most well known traditional blue and white plate pattern ,having been in production in one version or another for over 200 years. I was surprised to realize one day that my collection of Blue Willow plates, begun as a teenager, contains examples from at least a dozen different sets, made in at least half a dozen countries, over the last hundred and twenty years. Those plates are our ‘everyday’ plates, which we eat most of our meals on. I don’t mind that they don’t match, in fact it makes the plates more interesting to me.
Theoretically, the Blue Willow pattern represents the Anglicized version of an old Chinese fable.
When Liam, my youngest son, first joined a local storytellers’ guild, he chose the story of Blue Willow as his first story to ‘tell’ to an audience. The plate afforded a great visual prop and he was already very familiar with the story. For anyone reading this, who is not familiar with the story, this is the gist:
The Story of Blue Willow
Essentially, a great mandarin’s daughter fell in love with a poor fisherman, defying her father who had ‘promised her to‘ a wealthy old merchant of importance in their region. The young woman and her lover would meet secretly beneath the orange tree in the grove behind the palace when she could arrange to get away from the servants for a little while. When it became clear, she would never have her father’s consent to marry the fisherman, the two decided to run away together, seeking to escape her brutal father.
They hid for a day and a night under the shelter of a large willow tree near the sea, then they crossed a bridge to a nearby island where they escaped in the fisherman’s small boat. The enraged Mandarin sent his guards after them, ordering that they be killed upon capture.
They were caught a few days later when a storm blew the couple into shore and just as the guards prepared to execute them, a power beyond mortals intervened, changing them both to lovebirds who flew away together, free to love one another forever.
A bittersweet tale if ever there was one.
While the overall pattern on the Blue Willow plates has changed from manufacturer to manufacturer and country to country, probably with translation differences, most of the motifs in the story can be found in each version. The lovebirds, the willow tree, the orange tree, the bridge, the palace and the boat seem to be consistent elements.
I often combine this pattern with other blue and white plate patterns I collect to keep things interesting. If you are not familiar with the Blue Willow pattern, it is worth seeking out, in my opinion.