A number of readers have emailed me to ask about the pale blue-&-white china, pictured in so many of my recipes. Well, those questions couldn’t have been posed a more willing recipient! I’ve been collecting this pattern for years and truly treasure it; not just for its timeless elegance, but also on account of its historical & cultural importance.
The print is named Asiatic Pheasants and first went into production in Staffordshire circa 1834. To understand its significance, it’s important to learn a little bit about its predecessor; the Willow print.
Up until the mid-18th century, Chinese porcelain was unrivalled in its delicacy and quality. Due to importation-costs, this made the china prohibitively expensive; and it therefore remained the sole preserve of the rich and aristocracy.
Was local English pottery no good at the time? The problem was that it was all ‘reddish and earthen’ in colour, more like clay than china. Then in 1720, a Staffordshire potter by the name of John Astbury, made a ground-breaking discovery! He learnt that the application of ground flint powder to the clay transformed it, giving the ware a white or cream background onto which patterns could be applied. Hey presto, the English pottery-industry was born!
How does this apply to Willow, as mentioned above? If something is expensive and popular, what’s the first thing one does if given the opportunity? That’s right; copy it! Because blue Chinese-print imports were all the rage at that time; the English potters aimed to reproduce something that had an existing market and they could be sure would sell. This explains the blue colour and oriental patterning of the Willow plate, which retained its popularity until well into the 1850s.
The English potteries went from strength to strength, and suddenly everybody could afford what had previously been the sole domain of the elite. This led that elite to crave something different, and experimentation with new patterns ensued to achieve a ‘point of difference’ from the mass-market.
In addition to increasing demand for exclusivity, the English potters soon found their skill and quality were such that they no longer needed to rely on copies of Chinese designs; they were amply capable of coming up with their own!
Innovation is always reactive. Where previously all pottery had been dark in colour, people wanted something different; something lighter & fresh. Pale blue was the perfect shade, as it strongly referenced the hues which had preceded it, yet offered a cleaner, less cluttered look than the stately Willow. From there the Asiatic Pheasant print was born, soon to become the most popular pattern of the Victorian age.
The design has been in continual production since 1834. Much like the Victorians, our tastes today err towards the simple and ‘pared down’. The current trend in all restaurants and food-journals is for unpatterned white-china. This allows the food to take centre stage and not compete in visual terms with the receptacle that holds it.
Personally speaking however, I’m far too old-fashioned and outdated to cope with plain white. Give me a bit of history any day! What’s so perfect about Asiatic Pheasants, is that the tones are light enough to not ‘fight the food’; yet delicate enough to convey that timeless sense of classic elegance which will never date.
I feel strongly that we must support our few surviving potteries. Such skill and tradition should not be allowed to die out. We must secure this art-form for future generations. I love the thought that my china might one day be in use on somebody else’s dining-table, another 180 years from now.
Let’s drink to that!
Thank you for reading,