The exact moment of the pattern's invention is not certain. During the 1780s various engravers including Thomas Lucas and Thomas Minton were producing chinoiserie landscape scenes based on Chinese ceramic originals for the Caughley 'Salopian China Manufactory' (near Broseley, Shropshire), then under the direction of Thomas Turner. These included scenes with willows,
boats, pavilions and birds which were later incorporated into the
Willow pattern. However the Caughley factory did not produce the English
Willow pattern in its completed form.
Thomas Lucas and his printer James Richards left Caughley in c.1783 to work for Josiah Spode,
who produced many early Chinese-inspired transferwares during the 1780s
and 1790s. Thomas Minton left Caughley in 1785 and set up on his own
account in c.1793 in Stoke-on-Trent producing earthenwares: he is
thought to have engraved versions of willow designs for Spode and for various other factories.
It was probably for Spode that the English Willow pattern was created
and first produced perhaps around 1790, because it incorporates
particular, distinctive features of earlier Chinese willow scenes which
were already known and imitated at the Spode factory.
The Willow pattern is commonly presented in a circular or ovate
frame. The waterside landscape represents a garden in the lower right
side, in which a large two-storey pavilion stands. Approached by steps,
the lower storey has three large pillars with arched windows or openings
between. The roof and gable, shown in three-quarter perspective, is
surmounted by a smaller room similarly roofed, and there are curling
finials at the gables and eaves. It is surrounded by bushes and trees
with varied fruit and foliage, including a large tree rising behind with
clusters of oranges. Another pavilion roof appears among the trees to
the right and a smaller pavilion stands to the left projecting from the
waterside bank. A path through the garden leads to the front of the
scene and is crossed by a fence of diapered panels set zig-zag fashion
across the foreground.
On its left side the garden forms an irregular and indented bank
into the water, from the foreground of which a large branching willow
tree with four clusters of three leafy fronds leans out. From this point
a bridge, usually of three arches, crosses left to an island or bank
with a house having a tall arched doorway, and a small tree behind.
There are usually three figures on the bridge going away from the
garden. Above and beyond this the water (shown white) forms an open
expanse, with a boat at the centre left containing two little house-like
cabins, propelled by a figure with a punt-pole aforeships. In the upper
left quarter is a distant island or promontory with pavilions and
trees, including a fir. Above the scene in the centre is a pair of
flying swallows, one turning and one descending, their heads and beaks
turned closely towards one another in amorous conjunction.
It is the inclusion of the bridge, the garden fence, the central
pair of birds, and the particular details of the pavilions and
surrounding trees, in this arrangement, which together characterize the
English Willow pattern in its standard form.
The late Mr Robert Copeland, the ceramics historian, in his
whimsy used to refer to the figures on the bridge as "the Socialists",
because they were "going to the left"