Category: Decorative Arts

Design features and architecture incorporated in Willowwood.

Willow Ware at Willowwood

Highlights from the Decorative Arts Collection

By Dr. Lesley Parness, Retired MCPC Superintendent for Horticulture Education

Willow ware

The Tubb’s brothers keen interest in the decorative arts also included the practical, everyday items of life. At Willowwood, their interest in all things Asian is reflected in statuary, paintings and even dinnerware. A cupboard near the Dining Room stores the typical family daily use Willow Ware dishes, including dinner and serving plates, cup and saucers, bowls, sugar pots, creamers and even some very sweet egg cups which we imagine held freshly laid eggs from the families chicken coop. Some are chipped, others marked with the tracery of use, they bare witness to the fact that Willow Wood was a true home, well-used and the Dining Room, the heart of it.

The Blue Willow pattern is one of the most recognizable tableware patterns ever produced. First introduced in England in the late 18th century, it is still popular today. The pattern evolved from Chinese landscape painting and contains multiple elements: a mandarin’s pagoda and garden; the mandarin and his hunting party on a bridge; a fisherman who rescues the lovers; the lovers’ hideaway; two birds representing the lovers; a crooked fence and, of course, the Willow.

The Chinese first produced porcelain using kaolin, a local clay. In the 13th century, Chinese craftsmen used Iranian cobalt to create a vibrant blue and white finish. It is believed that the original Willow pattern was used by the secret Hung society to communicate their propaganda and plans. Manchu rulers discovered this and destroyed all of the Willow ware they could find, but having been introduced into England by that time, it was later reintroduced into China in the 19th century.

From the late 17th to the early 18th century, England had begun importing inexpensive Chinese dinnerware, including a blue and white pattern called “Two Birds,” the “parent” of the Willow pattern. Over time, many English china producers created their own Willowware including Minton, Spode and Worchester. The “Blue Willow” china pattern became popular in Europe and America, which created a high demand for the pieces. even today, Blue Willow is a stock pattern in many stores.

The romantic legend behind the Willow pattern is said to have been invented by English pottery houses as an 18th century marketing tool. It tells of a Chinese girl from a Royal family who was promised in marriage by her father to a Duke. However, she fell in love with a lowly accountant in her father’s court. Her father was so angry that he constructed a fence around his house so his daughter could not meet with her lover. The Duke, bearing jewels as gifts, traveled to the girl’s house in a boat. The wedding was set for the day after the Willow tree shed its blossoms. On the evening of the day that the Willow shed its leaves, the lovers escaped, making off with the jewels. The two ran over a bridge and escaped to safety on an island where they lived happily for a number of years. The jilted Duke, continued searching for them and upon discovering their hiding place, he sent soldiers to capture the lovers and put them to death. The Gods then intervened and transformed the lovers into a pair of doves or lovebirds.

This Chinese poem commemorates that story:

Two birds flying high,
A Chinese vessel sailing by,
A bridge with three men, sometimes four,
A Willow tree, hanging o’er.
A Chinese temple, there it stands,
Built upon the river sands.
An apple tree, with apples on,
A crooked fence to end my song.

Can you find these design elements in these images of Willow Ware?

The Conservatory

Highlights from the Decorative Arts Collection

By Dr. Lesley Parness, Retired MCPC Superintendent for Horticulture Education

The botanizing of brothers Henry and Robert Tubbs was a year round passion. So, in 1930 they decided to add a greenhouse to their home. In doing so, they joined a long line of gardeners seeking to extend their horticultural pleasure throughout the year.

The word conservatory is derived from the Italian “conservato” (stored or preserved) and Latin “ory” – a place for – and was originally used to describe a non–glazed structure used for storing food. Later the word was used to describe glazed structures for conserving, or protecting, plants from cold weather.

The earliest known conservatories date from the 17th century. At that time they were stone structures used by the scientific community, nobility and the landed gentry to protect plants, especially those that they had collected on their European tours and wished to grow back in the colder climate of England. The first conservatory in Britain was constructed in the Oxford Botanic Garden, another was built soon after in the Chelsea Physic Garden.

With their unerring ability to discern the “best,” the Tubbs chose a Lord & Burnham conservatory. The Lord and Burnham Company was started in 1849 in Buffalo, N.Y. Their first commission to create a 12,000 square foot conservatory similar to that in Kew gardens, England led to many others and the firm went on to become the premier source for custom conservatories at botanic gardens and large American estates.

Although at 12’x25’ in size, the Tubbs conservatory is relatively small by comparison to other Lord & Burnham greenhouses, it held an impressive variety of plants, both tender and tropical. Its interior finishes as well reflect the artistic nature of the Tubbs brothers. Their friendship with Henry Chapman Mercer, owner of the Moravian Tileworks in Doylestown, PA came into play, as the small fountain and its tiling were provided by Chapman. The tiles have now acquired a lovely aged patina and the soothing sound of water in the fountain can still be heard. These decorative elements re-enforce an American Arts and Crafts feel at Willowwood that can also been seen in Henry’s stenciled fabric wall hangings on display in the entry hall.

How pleasant it must have been to open the glass doors on the side of the parlor and enter this warm and fragrant space. In keeping true to the Tubb’s aesthetic, many of the same kinds of plants grown by them almost 100 years ago, still thrive in the Conservatory. A potted lemon, blooms and bears fruit, as they have done since Roman times when preservation of citrus was done in limonaia, stone pergola with wooden walls. A cut leaf philodendron and numerous succulents from around the tastefully clutter its benches, harkening the Golden Age of Plant Exploration, which both Henry and Robert studied.

The greenhouse at Willowwood Arboretum in one of just a handful of extant Lord & Burnham conservatories. The others include:

  • Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens
  • Enid Haupt Conservatory at New York Botanical Garden
  • Krohn Conservatory in Cincinnati
  • Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh
  • Steinhardt Conservatory at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden
  • United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C.
  • Volunteer Park Conservatory in Seattle, Washington
  • Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park in Canadaigua, NY

The Conservatory at Willowwood Arboretum may hold the title of the smallest Lord & Burham Conservatory at a public garden in America!

The Front Parlor

Highlights from the Decorative Arts Collection

By Dr. Lesley Parness, Retired MCPC Superintendent for Horticulture Education

1-a-People Marching

The Front Parlor of the Tubbs residence is home to a comfortable sofa and several chairs along with a variety of Asian artwork. We know that of the brothers Tubbs, Henry was the one most often found in antique shops here in New Jersey, and New York. His artist’s eye was quick to find the beautiful and the unusual.

Here are two examples of his passion for collecting on exhibit in the Front Parlor:

From the Willowwood Archives: WW2004.12.1 A & B – Japanese Prints

  • From Appraisal: Pair Oriental processional watercolors on silk with needlework borders
  • From CCAHA:
    • 1-A Unknown, people marching with banners and gongs, watercolor and gouache, pith paper, thin wove paper, 9-1/2″ x 13-3/8″
    • 1-B Unknown, people carrying a palanquin, Chinese, watercolor and gouache, pith paper, thin wove paper, 8/5/8″ x13-1/4″


What is particularly interesting about these pieces is the material that they are painted on – pith paper. Pith paper is made from the stem of the Tetrapanax papyrifer tree. Also known as the Fatsia or Rice Paper plant, this evergreen shrub is native to Southwest China and grows in Taiwan and throughout East Asia where it is called “tung-tsao,” meaning “hollow-plant.” A member of the Araliaceae family, it is used in traditional Chinese medicine as a diuretic and was not adopted for use in painting until the early 1800’s.

At that time, craftsmen created images on pith paper for the tourist trade. Accounts from diaries of visitors to Canton suggest that there was a flourishing trade in pith paintings. Westerners in China snatched up such artwork, depicting local customs, costumes, birds, bees, and flowers. Tourists called them rice-paper paintings from the mistaken notion that this distinctive paper was made from rice. The pith paintings were inexpensive, light, and easy to pack.

Tetrapanax papyrifer can grow to as high as 30’, and its wood is hard and dense. A craftsman with skill and a big knife can slice its pith, the spongey cellular tissue in the stem, into a sheet of smooth, bone-white paper. The paper has great strength in its youth, and when damp may be stretched and folded into almost any shape. For centuries, the Chinese have used pith paper to make artificial flowers and decorative hairpins. It also absorbs watercolors or tempera readily, creating a relief texture with a velvety visual depth. Because of its honeycomb cellular structure, the gouache used by the Chinese sat on its the surface and produced a bright, sparkling, jewel-like effect. As chinoiserie, (the romanticized European imitation of Chinese art eventually copied by the Chinese themselves for export) works on pith paper served to whet the western appetite for emblematic motifs of Chinese art.

There are collections of paintings on pith in such prestigious museums as the Ashmolean, the British Museum, the Fitzwilliam, the Hermitage, the Peabody/Essex Museum in Massachusetts and the Hong Kong Museum of Art. However, because paintings on pith are not in general regarded as fine art, they are usually found in ethnographic or specialised collections, such as Economic Botany. So, we are very fortunate to have two beautiful examples of this unusual artwork right here in Morris County.

Foo Dog Incense Burner

Highlights from the Decorative Arts Collection

By Dr. Lesley Parness, Retired MCPC Superintendent for Horticulture Education

While it is certainly true that Henry and Robert Tubbs had a passion for plant collecting, that same passion extended to the decorative arts as well. Learn about a different Tubbs residence artifact in this and upcoming issues of the Willowwood Journal.

Foo Dog Incense Burner

In this issue, we focus on FOO DOG INCENSE BURNER, Item number WW2004.12.31 A-C.

This 19th century bronze incense burner with a foo dog finial stands on a dark stained, tri-footed teak plinth. The Chinese ceremonial covered pot stands 21” high and is 11” in diameter. Cast in bronze, with hand-chased ornamentation, the outer surface bears a smoky patina from years of use. Smoke is expelled through the mouth and openings in the censer. Some of its traditional embellishments include the raised panel bas relief, a lavish mane, billowing tail, bared fangs, glaring eyes, and talon like feet.

Pictured here standing on the Tubbs residence porch, this piece usually resides in the Parlor on a low table adjacent to the door leading to the Library.

Incense in China is traditionally used in a wide range of cultural activities including religious ceremonies, ancestor veneration, traditional medicine and in daily life. Known as xiang, incense was used as early as 250 BC. Its use increased during the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) with greater trade and the availability of more fragrant materials. Incense was traditionally burned at the threshold of a home or business, before images and deities, in shrines, at home alters and at the main entrance to villages.

In Chinese art and secular life, incense and the utensils used in associated rituals are seen as metaphoric symbols, suggesting refinement and sophistication. The representation of the Foo Dog on this burner is typical of how the lion was viewed in ancient China. “Foo Dog” refers to any of the closely related dog breeds which resemble the Chinese guardian lions and hence are also called Lion Dogs. The animal was believed to have powerful mythic protective properties. Their appearance in Buddhist religious art in China is found as early as 208 BC, when it was believed that the Foo Lion was a protector of the Dharma, or Buddhist teachings.

How did the lion, which is not indigenous to China come to be known there? As Buddhism was spread from neighboring India to China by traveling Buddhist priests and monks, stories about stone lions guarding the entries to temples, monasteries and the palaces of kings were spread. Lions are indigenous to India and scholars believe that the depiction of the Foo Dog came about because Chinese sculptors combined lion-like imagery with that of Chinese native dogs.

Foo Dog Incense Burner is one of many Asian decorative art pieces amassed by Henry and Robert Tubbs. In both their garden and their home, the Tubbs brothers were drawn to Asian design sensibilities. We will explore this connection further in future columns.

Originally published in Willowwood Journal, Autumn, 2014