text by Lynn Petrak
photo by Barry Rustin
All antiques have a history, but behind every piece of Blue Willow china, there is a legend.
Considered one of the most beloved lines of chinaware in the world, Blue Willow has been immortalized in verse as well as porcelain. The patter, first introduced in England by the Thomas Turner company in the lat 18th-century, is based on an old Chinese tale of a rich mandarin whose daughter elopes with his poor clerk. In a rage, the mandarin chases the couple, but the gods turn them into a pair of turtledoves, leaving him standing on a bridge next to a weeping willow treee. There are variations in the patterns, but all blue Willow pieces feature some scene of this romantic story.
Collectors of Blue Willow china often find themselves falling deeply in love with the pattern, which has become a sought-after collectibe in recent years. Judy Jochem, who lives ina two-story Colorial home in the west suburbs, first discovered Blue Willow years ago when she lived in Baltimore. Like many aficionados, once she found it she was hooked: Judy now owns dozens of Blue Willow pieces, most of them plates, platters, and drainers. “I thought Blue Willow was more affordable, and plus, I could use it. It has a nice comfortable feel to it,” she explains, adding that the pattern is easier to find than other Oriental-inspired blue and white patterns. “I get it at antique shows, flea markets, and antique shops.” Because she treasures the bright blue and white pattern, Judy wanted to enjoy it as much as possible. Not content to store them in dusty, out-of-the-way drawers and shelves, she uses Blue Willow as her everyday dishes and when she entertains. “I use all of it. None of it is too sacred, because I wanted to collect what I could use,” she says.
Most of the items in Judy’s collection are featured in the kitchen, dining room, and living room. The dining room features traditional displays, such as platters hung on the walls and a large group of platters propped in an antique hutch. In the living room, bowls and platters serve as decorative accessories on the coffee table and end table. artful placement of the collectibles — whether in symmetrical wall groupings or simple tabletop vignettes — is a major contributor to the home’s interior design, tying each room to its neighbor in a charmingly uncluttered manner.
Although vivid blue and white patterns like Blue Willow china go well with many shades, the Jochems particularly like pairing it with yellow. While renovating the dining room, they replaced outdated wallpaper with pale yellow painted walls and white woodwork. “I don’t think blue and white looks better on anything than it does on yellow,” remarks Marilyn, adding that a more subdued shade worked for them. “Yellow can be overpowering, and we didn’t want anything like Mediterranean yellow. We worked hard to get it just right.”
The redesign of her home has been completed, but Judy still keeps an eye out for Blue Willow, combing antiue stores and shows. “I’m always looking for it — if I see it, I make a beeline right for it,” she says with a laugh, adding that her husband, Bob, occasionally joins her in the hunt and has discovered a few pieces for her.
“There is a lot of nondescript Blue Willow by modern manufacturers,” notes Kelly Vogel, owner of Wellesley House in Lake Forest a shop that stocks antique blue willow. “There are a lot of reproduction and knockoffs. Even so, some of that is collectible. You can find a plate for $35 or an ashtray for $15. At any antique mall, you’ll probably see Blue Willow. We usually sell drainers; we’ve had them from $150 to $2,100 for a platter-drainer combination. The platters are extremely valuable….They come in a variety of sizes from a large game platter down to a fish server.”
As an experienced collector, Judy offers some recommendations for people interested in antique china: Buy what you can use. And don’t buy chipped — get as perfect pieces as you can,” she says, adding that her own collection is one that is well suited for helping to create an overall design scheme. “Blue and white really goes with everything.”