This happened in the then highly civilized country of Persia sometime between A.D. 700 and 900. The new colour called for the use of a new pigment, an oxide of cobalt, and the result was a clear blue of indigo hue that was both stable and uniform in the firing.
Persian potters made much of this colour. And the china they decorated with it, alone or in combination with black, reached a high point in ceramic art. Just when pieces so decorated began to leave their native land is, of course, not known, but emigrate it did. Then, as now, trading caravans crossed and recrossed Central Asia.
Following such routes, Persian pieces, done on a white background with decorations in blue, eventually reached China. With them travelled the knowledge of how such china was made, and soon the late Sung dynasty potters were producing blue-and-white china for their countrymen. There it was known as Mohammedan blue in acknowledgment of the fact that it had come from that part of the world where the belief that "Allah is great and Mahomet is his prophet" held sway.
Once this new blue became known to the Chinese potters they adopted it as their own. Through the years of the Ming dynasty and into those of the K'ang Hsi, they developed it further and further. During the Ming dynasty the arts of peace were to the fore, and commercial intercourse with European traders from Spain, Portugal, and Holland was encouraged. Canton was the chief port for these "foreign devils." There they found a china with a white background decorated in a clear blue that delighted them. So, late in the fifteenth, or early in the sixteenth, century, these traders began to bring back home what they called blue-and-white Canton ware in honour of the place where they found it.
It was accepted in Europe 'almost at once
and much sought after, for the Western potters were still crude craftsmen
producing little but dull-bodied, salt-glazed earthenware. These superior
pieces from China caused a sensation. Therefore, through the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries, traders (particularly those of Holland) brought
back large consignments of the ware in their sailing vessels. These little
boats plied down the African coast, around the Cape of Good Hope, and
up the Pacific to the Chinese trading ports. Thus, too, did the term "china"
(signifying a pottery of fine white clay decorated in colour) get its
In England the Restoration opened for this ware another big market that was further increased when William and Mary, who were Dutch in their ways of living, succeeded James II. It was then that the English vogue for Chinese blue-and-white ware reached its height. However, the expense of bringing china cargoes back from the Far East was large and so the ware remained too costly for any but the rich. About this time European potters were moved to attempt a native ware that imitated the Chinese. In Holland this resulted in the famous Delft pottery. Here they used a native yellow clay and coated it with a tin oxide. After it had dried, and before it was fired, they decorated it with the cobalt blue. The result was a product that bore distinct resemblance to the Chinese.
In fact, the artists who did this decoration seemed, by careful study of the Chinese examples, to have mastered the Oriental idea of decoration. These Delft renderings of Chinese scenes were actually Chinese in spirit even though done half across the world beside the Zuyder Zee.
Nor were the English potters far behind.
They, too, felt the urge to try their skill at imitating this popular
blue-and-white ware. Besides, they disliked the idea of so much good English
money going over to Holland. About 1725, potteries in all sections of
England began to bring forth pieces of the coveted ware. There was, for
instance, English Delft; this was really a copy of a copy, and made definitely
to compete with the Dutch potteries of Delft and elsewhere. Then, using
the finer days of England, certain potters made skilful imitations of
the Chinese originals. Such were the products of Bristol, Lowestoft, and
Thus began the long years of the blue-and-white print wares that the Staffordshire potteries followed so successfully until well into the nineteenth century. It remained, however, for a man in Shropshire to give the real Chinese touch. He was Thomas Turner of the Salopian potteries at Caughley, known today as Coalport. Here, in 1780, he designed his famous willow pattern, a distinct effort to be Chinese in feeling. When this is studied beside a plate from Canton, it proves to have been inspired by it in both composition and arrangement.
The Turner pattern was a new departure and highly popular from the start. The public liked this Sino-English effort and entire dinner services of it found a ready market. Needless to say, other English potters copied the design and the willow pattern soon became what it remains today, one of the standard designs of all time.
With the beginning of the nineteenth century these Staffordshire potters sought to develop more and more new markets, among them that of the lately lost American colonies. The War of 1812 came and went. It was nothing to these potters. In an ever-increasing volume they kept making blue-and-white dishes for Americans, decorated with American views and devices, as well as pictorial presentations related to American history. That it was all highly profitable, with gratifyingly large sales, is evident from the quantities of the ware that have survived. Practically every well-appointed home had a fair supply of blue-and white dishes, especially those of the willow pattern. Families migrating westward from the Atlantic seaboard carried these cherished dishes along with them. A few years ago I saw all that had survived of a household supply shipped overland from Philadelphia in Conestoga wagons to southern Ohio. The present owner was fortunate in possessing letters and receipted bills proving that her family china had made this wagon journey in 1831. About half of these dishes were of the willow pattern.
It is well here to leave this account of the hegira of the ancient Persian blue for, as the Victorian years came along, something happened to the blue of these English importations. It became pale and still paler until at length its washed-out quality could claim little kinship with the original hue that had travelled so far, in both time and distance, to reach this country.