So I’m probably addicted to Willow Pattern china... I like the way it looks... the way it’s not in, or out of fashion, it spans centuries, and comes in all shapes, sizes and colours. And like so many old and used treasures, it almost always comes with a story.
I remember seeing blue and white china as a child in friends' homes and junk shops in the town where I grew up. It wasn't really on my radar as my parents rejected anything traditional or 'old fashioned' as it was what they had grown up with and had developed a much more modern outlook on life and home decor.
Our house was pretty cool at the time and my father spent all his spare moments after work and during weekends making the furniture from scratch! even the kitchen cabinets (this was long before IKEA) So anything I found in the junks shops, or the Saturday morning fire station jumble sale were to be kept in my room or my garden shed.
Early one Sunday morning 30 years later I was walking around the Derby Cattle Market car boot sale (which I used to absolutely love) with my mother, and I found myself looking at some chipped Willow Pattern cups and saucers. I liked them...but did I like them enough to buy? As I was thinking it over I heard a woman talking and realized it was the stall holder and she was talking to me.
"Two pounds for the lot! I can't do better than that!"
She was right. That was such a bargain and they were so beautiful... As I said yes she was already wrapping them up in newspaper and putting them into a plastic carrier bag. I took the bag, gave her the two pound coin and thanked her. She continued:
"They belonged to my grandpa Joe. He loved them and had the whole set at one time. Over the years they got broken. He died a while ago and these are all that's left."
This is when I realized that for two pounds, less than a price of a cup of coffee, I was buying not only history, but the love, memories, dreams, and all those things that make a person special, locked into the remains of a set of china that a man used and cared for until the day he died. Grandpa Joe, or at least his china, was going to take a trip with me to The Czech Republic and inspire me to build shelves, plaster walls, and start collecting Willow Pattern.
The first thing I wanted to find out was what exactly is Willow Pattern? While unpacking boxes of china I noticed I had a Spode Willow Pattern teapot, a gravy boat with another mark on its base, a selection of earthenware plates with no clear marks whatsoever... After a little investigation I discovered that Willow Pattern was actually created in England in 1780 by engraver Thomas Minton, who then sold the design to potter Thomas Turner who mass-produced the pattern on earthenware. There are apparently 400 documented producers of Willow Pattern in Britain and 500 worldwide.
I knew I was never going to be an expert and be able to recognize the differences between two similar plates, what was old, what was valuable, what was trash... but I wasn't going to stop collecting. I just had to set out some rules to follow and these are pretty simple: it has to be Willow Pattern or even sometimes a copy if it's particularly nice. It has to be blue and white, even if there are other colours that are amazing...green, brown, pink... And it has to be a bargain. This last one for me was quite important. There are so many amazing items you can buy online and in antique shops, some of which are pretty expensive. However, there are also so many unwanted odds and ends: tureens without lids, lids without teapots, teacups without saucers... who wants these?
I once bought a small very old chipped and stapled together plate from a charity shop in England. The shop assistant looked at it and told me it was so cheap because it was damaged. I told him that it was chipped because it had been used and loved and this is what made it so beautiful. The idea that someone would mend and reuse this china is almost alien to our modern way of thinking. I have a wonderful teapot that's been stapled, soldered and glued together so many times that it's mind-blowing it's still here... it's a survivor and it makes me love it all the more.
The room that is now my dining room and the home for the majority of my Willow Pattern, used to be a damp, closed off part of the house filled to the ceiling with junk. I needed somewhere to display my china, and this room was going to be perfect. I cleaned it up, plastered the walls after learning to plaster, built a dresser out of old wood and a cupboard I found in the attic, and there it was: a new home for my Willow.
Over the years I have bought so many pieces of Willow, I've been given it as gifts, I've found it in markets and junks shops across England, and I once even found it in a flea market in the Czech Republic. It's spreading throughout my house from the dining room and into the kitchen and hall... A good friend once said that I should use it and not just collect it, and so I do.