In simpler times, a romantic tale emerged. The story was set in China, but actually came from an English designer named Thomas Minton. The English often romanticized far-off, exotic places in the 18th and 19th century, so it only made sense that the tale would come around at that time.
Minton designed the now-iconic blue and white porcelain in 1790 and it has stayed in vogue ever since. The traditional willow pattern always features a willow tree and a bridge. The popular story behind willow pattern pieces was based on the design itself, rather than basing the design on an already existing story.
A traditional willow pattern plate. Photograph CC 3.0
The story goes like this (via Wikipedia):
“Once there was a wealthy Mandarin, who had a beautiful daughter (Koong-se). She had fallen in love with her father’s humble accounting assistant (Chang), angering her father. (It was inappropriate for them to marry due to their difference in social class.) He dismissed the young man and built a high fence around his house to keep the lovers apart. The Mandarin was planning for his daughter to marry a powerful Duke. The Duke arrived by boat to claim his bride, bearing a box of jewels as a gift. The wedding was to take place on the day the blossom fell from the willow tree.
On the eve of the daughter’s wedding to the Duke, the young accountant, disguised as a servant, slipped into the palace unnoticed. As the lovers escaped with the jewels, the alarm was raised. They ran over a bridge, chased by the Mandarin, whip in hand. They eventually escaped on the Duke’s ship to the safety of a secluded island, where they lived happily for years. But one day, the Duke learned of their refuge. Hungry for revenge, he sent soldiers, who captured the lovers and put them to death. The gods, moved by their plight, transformed the lovers into a pair of doves (possibly a later addition to the tale, since the birds do not appear on the earliest willow pattern plates).”
The style is so iconic that willow pattern pieces are often used in TV and film to imitate a classic 19th century setting. It’s truly a beautiful, traditional design that will doubtless stick around for a long, long time.
This is not the first Aesop’s fable we’ve posted, and it won’t be the last. Aesop’s fables have stuck around for a reason; they always have something to teach us.
The story goes that Aesop, a slave in ancient Greece, “made use of humble incidents to teach great truths, and after serving up a story he adds to it the advice to do a thing or not to do it. Then, too, he was really more attached to truth than the poets are…” (Philostratus)
Only in the 18th century were the stories first marketed to children as useful moral tales.
The Milkmaid and Her Pail
(From Project Gutenberg)
“A farmer’s daughter had been out to milk the cows, and was returning to the dairy carrying her pail of milk upon her head. As she walked along, she fell a-musing after this fashion: “The milk in this pail will provide me with cream, which I will make into butter and take to market to sell. With the money I will buy a number of eggs, and these, when hatched, will produce chickens, and by and by I shall have quite a large poultry-yard. Then I shall sell some of my fowls, and with the money which they will bring in I will buy myself a new gown, which I shall wear when I go to the fair; and all the young fellows will admire it, and come and make love to me, but I shall toss my head and have nothing to say to them.” Forgetting all about the pail, and suiting the action to the word, she tossed her head. Down went the pail, all the milk was spilled, and all her fine castles in the air vanished in a moment!
Do not count your chickens before they are hatched.”
Aesop’s fables are tales contributed to a slave named Aesop from as early as his alleged birth in 620 B.C — but it’s unknown whether he was a real person or not. In fact, Aesop’s name is usually attributed to any fable without a known author.
We can all use some fables in our life, so here’s one from a 2003 edition of Aesop’s Fables.
“A prophet sat in the marketplace and told the fortunes of all who cared to engage his services. Suddenly there came running up one who told him that his house had been broken into by thieves, and that they had made off with everything they could lay hands on. He was up in a moment, and rushed off, tearing his hair and calling down curses on the miscreants. The bystanders were much amused, and one of them said, “Our friend professes to know what is going to happen to others, but it seems he’s not clever enough to perceive what’s in store for himself.”
Looking for a way to instantly bring yourself back to childhood? How about a dose of Arthur Rackham?
Rackham was an English artist who illustrated books in the late 19th and early 20th century, taking advantage of the market for quality illustrated books at the time. You’ve seen him around. In postcards and calendars, coffee table books and greeting cards, Rackham’s art thrills fantasy lovers and art collectors alike. But why is it that Arthur Rackham, born in 1867, still excites the imagination to this day? Consider his mythological and folkloric inspiration.
The Twa Corbies
With fairies, goblins, and elves, along with a masterful sense of movement and Germanic art style, a sense of wonder truly pours from his art. Sometimes his darker, gloomier tones illustrate the more mysterious sides of stories with gnarled, twisted trees or wizened faces.
Rackham’s style molded our modern interpretation of the Victorian aesthetic, when children were beginning to be recognized not as little adults but as people who still needed room to grow. Rackham started his work by sketching a drawing outline, putting in details, then going over the lines with India ink. He added color through multiple watercolor washes for translucent colors, although it has been suggested that color was a challenge for him, considering his insistence on subdued tones.
Rackham’s art was the perfect partner of the fanciful children’s books released at the time: Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, Hans Christian Andersen’s Tales, Aesop’s Fables and many more. His illustrations for A Midsummer Night’s Dream are considered one of his masterpieces.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
He also inspired many artists today, including director Guillermo del Toro, who cited Rackham’s art as inspiration for his film Pan’s Labyrinth. These days you can find his art on cards, postcards and calendars or, if you’re lucky, his illustrations in an original edition.
Text decoration from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
What’s your favorite Arthur Rackham illustration?
- 1900-1920 Art: Arthur Rackham (mattvansickle.wordpress.com)
- Arthur Rackham (jadeautumnink.wordpress.com)
- Illustration 1900-1920 (lgranberg1825.wordpress.com)