Blue willow English china, also called willow ware, describes pieces of ceramic pottery with blue-on-white Chinese-styled artwork that were produced in England in the 18th century. The main theme for the designs included willow trees, pagodas, two or three human figures, bridges, landscapes and birds.
According to Encyclopaedia Brittanica, the blue willow design was first created by Thomas Turner for a teapot at the Caughley China Works factory in Shropshire, England. However, other sources credit Thomas Minton with designing the first blue willow patterns.
The designs were applied to the pottery using a technique called transfer printing. This involved printing the design on tissue paper and, while the blue ink was still wet, transferring the tissue paper to the ceramic surface. This process produced a high level of detail on the finished pieces. Josiah Spode I is credited with perfecting the transfer printing technique, according to the Spode Museum. The Spode Museum houses what are believed to be the earliest examples of the blue willow pattern and the original copper plates.
The willow theme is based on an English story set in China about star-crossed lovers. They were not allowed to marry, so they ran away together, crossing a bridge to escape. They were able to elude the young woman's intended fiance for a few years, but he eventually discovered and killed them to get revenge. The gods, out of sympathy, transformed the lovers into birds. The story was used to promote the china and has no basis in Chinese literature.