Research – Willow Pattern

While researching blue and white ware, I also came across the use of “willow pattern” in blue and white ware plates.

This is a pattern which originally derives from China, however it became very popular in England during the 18th century with the development of ceramic transfer prints, allowing the elaborate patterns to be mass produced and affordable.

In order to be defined as willow pattern, or at least “standard willow pattern” (there are variations), a piece needs to have a specific set of images, which relate to the original Chinese story which the pieces depict. These are an orange tree, a house, with a smaller side building, a willow tree next to a bridge with three people crossing it, a lake with a boat, another building on the shore opposite the house, a fence in the foreground of the image, and two birds in the sky at the upper center of the plate. The story centers around two young lovers, separated by the girl’s father due to class, and their plight to be together represented by various elements in the image. As with much traditional art, it is interesting to me that the image contains an entire narrative through the use of imagery and symbolism, but the viewer needs to be literate in the specific visual imagery of the piece in order to read the narrative.

While it is something that I admire and find interesting, I am not sure I feel comfortable with this very clear barrier to entry in terms of the work. It is a fine line I feel between having a piece which is not immediately clear, but can be grasped after a degree of reflection and contemplation, and a piece where the meaning of which may never be understood without explanation or context to the symbolism used. While every element of the story is quite clear when looking at the willow pattern with this knowledge in mind, I do not believe that a person would be able to determine the nature of the story by purely the image alone. Despite this, willow pattern is a strong example of the use of narrative in imagery, which is something I am looking to convey in my own work, although I will have  to keep in mind not to make it too obtuse to the layman and applicable only to me.

As with all designs which become part of the public psyche, there are many artists who take the classical imagery of willow pattern and subvert it.

Robert Dawson’s work plays with perspective and focus, often using willow pattern as a recognisable reference point to then be taken into a new context. When a single element from this pattern is blown up and made into the entire focus of the piece, as with “Garden” where only the pair of birds are present, or the three men crossing a bridge, does this still constitute willow pattern? Arguably it does not, as it doesn’t contain all the elements that constitute willow pattern, and yet at the same time it is unmistakably a willow pattern image. These pieces push the boundaries of our understanding of imagery, and question our definitions and categories. At what point do these images cease to contain the narrative which they have been given? How far can they be abstracted before they become something new?

In this respect, while they still carry the initial narrative and history of willow pattern, they also offer something to the layman who knows nothing of the history or imagery used in willow pattern. Not only are they attractive images, as is standard willow pattern on its own, it prompts the viewer to question perspective, context, scale and the nature of image by presenting them with something unexpected which they then are forced to engage with and evaluate.


Another artist subverting the willow pattern, which I have a particular fondness is Olly Moss.

Moss takes all the classic features of standard willow pattern, the house, bridge, fence, two birds etc, but has chosen to represent them using sprites from the classic GameBoy games Pokemon Gold and Silver.

overworld image from Pokemon Gold/Silver games

overworld image from Pokemon Gold/Silver games

These are games which I grew up playing and have invested hundreds of hours into, and so the imagery is not only immediately recognisable, but speaks extremely strongly to me. While some may see this as a very frivolous endeavour of little consequence, to me these pieces show a representation of a strongly culturally significant piece of work (the Pokemon games, and video games in general) in a contemporary fine art context. It has always been the case that art has mimicked, referenced, and played upon famous figures, cultural icons, and events, whether they be books, films or persons, and yet it is very rare that we see this applied to video games. Video games are often seen as merely entertainment, as if this holds no value, and are not analysed for their significance and cultural impact in the same way that books and film are. In his work Moss has combined two distinctly different forms of imagery, both have which have been adopted into the cultural subconscious without necessarily having any in depth knowledge of either (most people would recognise at least, if not name both pokemon and willow pattern imagery), in a way that gives each a platform to reach a new audience. Those who have a strong knowledge of willow pattern, may have very little experience with Pokemon, and vice versa, and this presents the question of whether it changes the narrative of the piece. Perhaps it is reflective of the viewer, as to me (somebody with a long history and experience of Pokemon) the piece speaks far more to me of Pokemon and loses almost all narrative related to willow pattern. Although that narrative is still present with the various imagery and symbolism, to me it loses all importance and focus and simply acts as a medium for the Pokemon imagery. However, to someone who is much more invested in willow pattern they may view the piece in a completely different context to myself.


An artist recommended to me by my tutor, who is in fact a graduate of ceramics in my university from the previous year is Katie Weyman. She uses willow pattern in her work as a representation for her romanticising of  place, specifically her home town of Bristol, and the willow pattern is used as a familiar reference point that can relate to a loved one or relative as it is likely that we have all seen representations of the willow pattern in the home.

What interests me about her work, is not only the illustrated nature of the pieces, which have been hand painted onto the surface (the manner in which I wish to work) but the way in which the image spills off from the surface and continues onto the ground. As with the work of Robert Dawson, I find this playing of perspective and context of image very powerful. Rather than the image being confined and viewed in a specific frame, it is actively controlling and altering its own surroundings, and speaks of the synergy in which we do not view our own personal narrative objectively in a frame, a moment in time, but that it in turn effects and impacts on us, and it is through this continual process of growth and change that we develop.

handheld teacup - Katie weyman

Handheld teacup – Katie Weyman

This piece particularly strikes me, in its tactile and handheld nature. This forces the viewer to engage with the piece physically, something which I have looked at in many previous artists and always found speaks to me on a personal and intimate level, as is the design of these objects. The piece is no longer something foreign, to be viewed at from a distance, but now an extension of the body to be handled, inspected, and becomes part of the self. In this way, the viewer is then made to consider the imagery and the narrative in the context of the self, of their position in relation to the piece and how it reflects upon their own personal narrative.

Considering that I am aiming in my work to express the experience and development of the self, and encourage self reflection and recognition in the viewer, this is precisely what I feel has been achieved by this piece, and others with a handheld and tactile element. This could be a strong influence in my work, and something which I will have to consider incorporating into the design of my medals.


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