I am feeling a little nostalgic today so found myself thinking about my long association with Willow Pattern china. My first encounter with the legend relating to the pattern must have come from a children’s encyclopaedia. I was enthralled both by the story and the attractiveness of the design and have always been determined to own something decorated with such a pattern.
First the story, which will be familiar to most of my readers: it basically involves a beautiful girl who was the promised bride of an old, yet wealthy, merchant. Her father was a Chinese Mandarin who lived with his family in a magnificent pagoda with a lovely fenced garden containing both a willow and an apple tree. The daughter, Kwang-se, had the misfortune to fall in love with her father’s clerk. The young couple decided to elope across the sea to the cottage on the island. Naturally enough they were pursued and caught. As the father was about to have them both killed, the gods transformed them into a pair of turtle doves. Some versions have them escaping and living in harmony for some years before their home was torched and they were turned into doves. What does that matter? It is a romantic story that captured my very young heart.
At last, when I was already ‘too old’ to play with toy tea sets, I found a china tea set in our local toy shop in Barberton. It remained in its box for years until my parents moved to live on the farm permanently. My mother then set out my little tea set on her Welsh dresser – how lovely the pieces looked against that dark wood!
Some years later, she purchased a willow pattern dinner service which was railed down to her from Johannesburg. She too had a great fondness for the willow pattern and was pleased that I could share her joy.
We were camping in the Tsitsikamma area many years ago when we had to go to the supermarket in George to purchase supplies. My eye was caught by a willow patterned dinner service displayed on a shelf. Camping or not, I simply had to have it! Fortunately each set of four servings was packed in a sturdy square plastic container – the two of which remained packed in the back of our truck until the end of our camping trip.
Since the death of my mother, the remains of her set has mingled with mine. I use the pieces only for special occasions, such on those now all too rare times when some of our extended family can sit around the dining room table.
My mother’s set is a darker blue than mine, which reminds me that although all willow patterns may look alike, small details may differ according to the various manufacturers in terms of the colour, the number of apples, the figures on the bridge and the design of the crooked fence. Ours seem to differ only in colour.