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“The Most Popular Service”:
Blue and White Porcelain, Willow Pattern …and a Tube Poster

 Emily Aleev-Snow

 

Very often, as I’m wandering around the miles of corridors in the V&A – or just wandering around in my life, generally – I am confronted with an object or design detail that immediately sparks my curiosity and demands that I ask, “What IS that? And how did it come into being?” Maybe this happens to you, as well?

The answers to these seemingly straightforward questions often turn out to be tantalizingly complex, and likely to beget even more questions: Who was making this? How did it develop, and why? Under what circumstances were the ideas and knowledge for it transmitted – possibly across geographies and cultures and time? Who were the intended consumers or users (or, maybe, who was really using or consuming it, and how and why)? Did the object move spatially, or temporally? How and why did this movement occur, and how was the object perceived, and assimilated or altered (or rejected), wherever it went? And what about the materials that make up the object? Why were they chosen, and are they culturally contingent, and do they change or travel? How does an object – any object – reflect or drive the practices or geographies or usages of which it is a part? …And so on, and so forth. Coming face to face with objects that are excitingly unfamiliar can open up whole new worlds of inquiry; conversely, the objects most familiar to us, objects that we might unthinkingly perceive as very solidly culturally, geographically, or temporally located in a certain way, can in actuality contain a wealth of global connections and other unexpected plot twists that can complicate and challenge our views of such concepts as origin, authenticity, tradition (just to name a few).

While nearly all of my research projects begin as a moment with an object in the way I’ve described above, there are unfortunately only so many projects one can pursue, and so most of these moments are necessarily left to simmer on the back burner of my mind. I hope to use my contributions to our Object of the Week column to think about some of these objects that have grabbed at my curiosity, and the questions that they raise. That is to say, I will most likely be coming up with a lot of questions and not very many answers; but it seems to me that taking a bit of time to discuss the questions that surround my “objects of curiosity” – or any objects – can prove useful to the way we think about and execute our research as design historians, and how we think about the world, even if there is never the time or impetus to develop full research projects around these particular objects.

 

“The Most Popular Service”: Blue and White Porcelain, Willow Pattern …and a Tube Poster

The Popular Service Suits All Tastes, 1913. Double Royal standard poster format, W 625mm x H 1010mm. Printed by Johnson, Riddle & Company Ltd, Published by Underground Electric Railway Company Ltd. London Transport Museum Number: 1983/4/370.  Image © Emily Aleev-Snow, 2013

The Popular Service Suits All Tastes, 1913. Double Royal standard poster format, W 625mm x H 1010mm. Printed by Johnson, Riddle & Company Ltd, Published by Underground Electric Railway Company Ltd. London Transport Museum Number: 1983/4/370. Image © Emily Aleev-Snow, 2013

 

I first stumbled upon this poster last autumn during a visit to the London Transport Museum. Commissioned by the Underground Electric Railway Company in 1913 for publicity purposes, the poster contains a pastiche of the immediately recognizable and ubiquitous blue and white Willow Pattern print transfer design that has featured prominently on British-made ceramic tableware from the 1790s to the present day. A train and a station building replace the typical pagoda and boat elements in the pattern, and a caption reads, “The popular service suits all tastes,” a play on words that conflates the popularity of the Willow Pattern dinner service and the train service.[1]

A meaningful reading of the poster depends upon the viewer’s recognition of the Willow Pattern design and acknowledgement of its widespread popularity. This poster is advertising a mass transit system, and therefore targeting a very broad audience; this speaks to an assumption on the part of the Underground Electric Railway Company that  the choice of this design would be relatable to a wide variety of social groups.

 

Image © Emily Aleev-Snow, 2013.

Image © Emily Aleev-Snow, 2013.

A dish featuring the classic Willow Pattern. Plate, Spode, Stoke-on-Trent, England, c. 1800-1820, earthenware, transfer-printed in underglaze blue. V&A Museum number: C.847-1925. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A dish featuring the classic Willow Pattern. Plate, Spode, Stoke-on-Trent, England, c. 1800-1820, earthenware, transfer-printed in underglaze blue. V&A Museum number: C.847-1925. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

 

How did this poster, in this form, using these design elements, come into being?

There is so much to unpack here, and many entry points into this discussion, so it is safe to say that I will be covering only a very small fraction of all of the interesting issues that could be raised around this subject. To begin with, I think it makes sense to start an examination of the development of the Willow Pattern by backing up further to think about the history of Chinese porcelain manufacture and trade – first in terms of the far-reaching impact of Chinese porcelain on the European market; then focusing on the evolution of blue and white patterns and techniques; and then, finally, looking at the development of the Willow Pattern and its rise to become a literal poster child for popularity and ubiquity.

 

“True” Porcelain vs. Homemade Ceramic Wares

The product that is today designated as “true” porcelain, composed of a mixture of kaolin and china-stone and fired at extremely high heat, was developed at the kilns of Jingdezhen in the opening years of the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). China held a monopoly on the secrets of its production until the early eighteenth century, and the rest of the Afro-Eurasian world coveted porcelain for its brilliant white color, translucency, hardness, and impermeability. Chinese kilns took European commissions for shipments of porcelain from at least as early as the beginning of the sixteenth century, but these items were out of reach for all but the very wealthiest. The overwhelming desire for porcelain drove technological experimentation at home, as manufacturers strove to discover the secret of porcelain, or at least create a product as similar as possible. By the time European researchers finally figured out the recipe in 1708,[2] British domestic manufacturers had created ceramic wares that gained a following in their own right, separate from that of porcelain.

While the wealthiest of the upper classes may have still prized porcelain above all, a larger segment of society was buying domestically produced ceramic tableware. I would suggest that, rather than looking at this phenomenon as a straightforward case of import substitution (in which a highly desired but prohibitively expensive imported product is replaced in the market with a more accessible domestically produced product), the situation may have been rather more nuanced than that: though the middling sorts may have been no less interested than their upper class counterparts in acquiring the accoutrements necessary for the performance of fashionable dining practices, homemade products were in no way seen as inferior to imported versions, but rather part of a specifically middling class value system in which homemade production and economic practicality were sources of pride.[3] A manufacturing process that resulted in the production of ceramics of varying levels of quality and expense aided in the accessibility of these domestic wares to a very broad range of society[4] – a group large enough that eventually the Underground Electric Railway Company could create an advertisement that depended on a widespread familiarity with these objects.

 

Blue and White Patterns and Techniques

Most people, I suppose, might at first consideration think of blue and white patterns on porcelain and other ceramics as purely Chinese in origin, but the development of these motifs and techniques is much more convoluted than it might initially appear. In fact, blue and white patterned porcelain most likely came about as a result of exchange between China and the Middle East. Porcelain was a highly desirable commodity in the Middle East and certainly inspired many craftsmen there, but it was plagued by an aesthetic issue: the monochromatic glazes favored in China ran counter to the long-held Middle Eastern preference for brightly colored decoration for ceramic wares.[5] Muslim merchants living in China at the beginning of the fourteenth century were aware of (a) a strong and lucrative market for porcelain in the Middle East, (b) Middle Eastern craftsmens’ technical difficulties in using cobalt oxide to achieve a highly desirable blue and white decorative pattern on their wares, and (c) the technical innovations happening at the Jingdezhen kilns; and they sensed a business opportunity. Massive quantities of cobalt oxide ore were shipped from the Middle East to China, and Chinese craftsmen took inspiration from the metalwork, textiles and other objects in the Muslim merchants’ lavishly appointed homes to create relatable porcelain forms with blue and white glaze patterns customized for – and shipped in bulk to – the Middle Eastern markets.[6]

 

A blue and white patterned brush rest made for the Middle Eastern market. A thorough examination of this object was undertaken last year by our colleague, Violet Pakzad. Brush rest, Jingdezhen, China, c. 1506-1521, white porcelain moulded, decorated with cobalt blue under the glaze. V&A Museum number: FE.195-1974. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A blue and white patterned brush rest made for the Middle Eastern market. A thorough examination of this object was undertaken last year by our colleague, Violet Pakzad. Brush rest, Jingdezhen, China, c. 1506-1521, white porcelain moulded, decorated with cobalt blue under the glaze. V&A Museum number: FE.195-1974. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

 

It took until the end of the fourteenth century for these comparatively gaudy designs (continually adapted by craftsmen with images and motifs that would be meaningful to their intended consumers) to catch on in the Chinese domestic market, but by the time Europeans began commissioning shipments of porcelain during the sixteenth century, blue and white patterned porcelain had long been a strong seller in multiple markets. Unsurprisingly, blue and white patterned decorative glazing became a favorite for the ornamentation of other non-porcelain ceramics as well.

 

…And now we come to the Willow Pattern (finally)

There is some debate about precisely who – there is evidence for either Thomas Minton or Josiah Spode I – was responsible for the creation of the Willow Pattern transfer print in the early 1790s, but it was reproduced by a number of different companies on creamware or pearlware dishes.[7] It is thought that Willow Pattern is a composite of various elements taken from imported blue and white Chinese porcelain.[8]  However, it is important to note that any notion of the Willow Pattern being created from ‘authentically’ Chinese designs is complicated by the fact that Chinese porcelain made for export typically featured images and motifs constructed by Chinese craftsmen, as representations of their perception of the European perception of ‘Chineseness’. (are you still with me?) The Willow Pattern was only one of many hundreds of blue and white Chinese-inspired transfer prints produced for British ceramics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and yet the Willow Pattern print seems to have been overwhelmingly the most popular. The remains of more Willow Pattern ceramic wares have been recovered from archaeological dig sites around London in enormous numbers, and it is very telling that these were in a variety of locations that have historically housed residents of very different social strata.[9] The Willow Pattern was undeniably popular, and accessible to a wide range of sorts, even to the point that a tale of star-crossed lovers based on the imagery in the pattern made its way into popular culture through literature and song from at least the 1830s.[10]

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, there are many questions here that remain unanswered, including but not limited to: how and why did different sorts of people purchase the Willow Pattern, and did their perceptions and usages differ? What about purchasing patterns – did people slowly build their ceramic sets piece by piece, or combine Willow Patterned wares with those of other patterns, or combine pieces of varying levels of quality (and if so, which pieces did they prioritize)? Above all, of all of the hundreds of blue and white patterns produced, why did the Willow Pattern become so enormously popular, with imagery so enduring and ubiquitous that it could eventually end up as a pun on a Tube poster?

Finally, I am of course up to my eyeballs in History of Design, so the idea that an object could represent an archive is one that I am completely preoccupied with, but how often do you suppose most people stop to think about how something as apparently mundane as the design on a Tube poster could only have come about through several hundred years of cultural, economic and technical exchange? Maybe more often than we might think. Our sense of curiosity and wonder when looking at objects is not something that we have a monopoly on, so when we are (inevitably) asked what it means to be Design Historians, perhaps this fundamental connection with objects might be the most easily sharable point of entry for explaining what it is that we do?

 


[1] London Transport Museum, The Popular Service Suits All Tastes 1913 – Poster  http://www.ltmuseumshop.co.uk/posters/product/the-popular-service-suits-all-tastes-1913-poster.html [accessed 18 October 2013].

[2] At the court of Augustus II (the Strong), Elector of Saxony and King of Poland (1670-1733). Robert Finlay, ‘The Pilgrim Art: The Culture of Porcelain in World History’, Journal of World History, Vol. 9 No. 2, (1998), 141-187 (p. 143).

[3] Emily Aleev-Snow, Hannah Stockton, and Angela McShane, ‘Empires of Glass: Bristol Manufacturers Isaac and Lazarus Jacobs and the Colonial Taste in Bottles’, Imperial City: Bristol in the World Conference, UWE, 21-22 September 2013.

[4] Nigel Jeffries (Museum of London Archaeology), ‘The Enduring Appeal of the Willow Pattern Print’, Materiality of Regency and Victorian Domesticity, Victoria and Albert Museum, 18 October 2013.

[5] Robert Finlay, ‘The Pilgrim Art: The Culture of Porcelain in World History’, Journal of World History, Vol. 9 No. 2, (1998), 141-187 (p. 153).

[6] Robert Finlay, ‘The Pilgrim Art: The Culture of Porcelain in World History’, Journal of World History, Vol. 9 No. 2, (1998), 141-187 (p. 153).

[7] Robert Copeland, Spode’s Willow Pattern & Other Designs After the Chinese (Studio Vista, 1980), p. 33; Nigel Jeffries (Museum of London Archaeology), ‘The Enduring Appeal of the Willow Pattern Print’, Materiality of Regency and Victorian Domesticity, Victoria and Albert Museum, 18 October 2013.

[8] Nigel Jeffries (Museum of London Archaeology), ‘The Enduring Appeal of the Willow Pattern Print’, Materiality of Regency and Victorian Domesticity, Victoria and Albert Museum, 18 October 2013.

[9] Nigel Jeffries (Museum of London Archaeology), ‘The Enduring Appeal of the Willow Pattern Print’, Materiality of Regency and Victorian Domesticity, Victoria and Albert Museum, 18 October 2013.

[10] There is some debate as to which came first – the Willow Pattern or its accompanying legend. It does seem more probable, however, that the story first arose here in Britain rather than being an actual “Chinese legend.” Nigel Jeffries (Museum of London Archaeology), ‘The Enduring Appeal of the Willow Pattern Print’, Materiality of Regency and Victorian Domesticity, Victoria and Albert Museum, 18 October 2013.

 

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Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A.  If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch!

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Emily Aleev-Snow –

Emily graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 2004 with a BA in East Asian Studies, with a particular focus on Edo Period Japan. After joining the Asian strand of the V&A/RCA History of Design MA, she has broadened the scope of her interests to a more global focus, asking questions about what objects can tell us about the sharing of knowledge across geographies. For her dissertation, Emily will be exploring the role of the practice of falconry as a medium of global exchange in the Early Modern period through its material culture.

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© Emily Aleev-Snow 2013. All Rights Reserved

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Blue and White Porcelain, Willow Pattern …and a Tube Poster”

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