An Introduction to Blue and White Ceramics from Delft, Netherlands

Are you an enthusiast of the arts?  Does exploring and learning about various lifestyles, societal norms, traditions, heritage, history, and other forms of intangible and tangible elements about a destination fascinate you?

If your answer is yes, you have found yourself in the right place. If not, then this is just the place to begin your journey towards achieving cultural awareness.

In this post, I will be talking about Delftware from Delft, Netherlands. Delft is a small city located in the south-west of the Netherlands, in the South Holland province. It is an old city established in the early 12th century.

Due to its rich culture and historical association to the dynasty of the reigning royals of Holland, Delft has become a highly popular tourist destination over the years.

It is best known for its pottery, the birthplace and resting place of Johannes Vermeer, known for famous paintings such as the ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and the ‘Milkmaid’.

Old Canal Delft
Old Canal at Delft. Image by djedj from Pixabay

It is also known for its unique medieval style architecture, canal lines, and for housing one of the best universities in the world, The Delft University of Technology.

Though there is plenty to discuss about Delft, this post will focus on its pottery and the culture around it.

Introducing Delft Blauw

Delft Blauw or Delft Blue in English is most described as a type of white and blue pottery originally produced only in Delft. Its distinct quality, colours and designs differentiate it from other types of similar earthenware. Even today, it is internationally acclaimed and famous, especially among artists and collectors.

Pottery is a genre of decorative art. Arts and crafts that produce artistic objects and designs to have both functional and aesthetic purposes fall under the decorative arts. Pottery, embroidery, interior design, and glassware are just some of the examples of decorative arts. Blue and white pottery is a style of pottery with many variations across the globe. It is essentially glazed pottery with a white background and intricate designs hand painted with cobalt blue pigment. One such version of blue and white pottery is Delftware. Potters in Delft prefer to call their products porcelain, but really, it is pottery because it is an evolved and imitated version of the original Chinese blue and white porcelain. This is mainly because of the differences in the materials and techniques used to manufacture them.

The International History of Delftware 

The art of making porcelain originated in China during the Tang dynasty between the 7th and 10th centuries. However, the art of making blue and white pottery originated in modern-day Iraq.

8th century Iraq was part of the Abbasid caliphate. Once, the caliph had received gifts from the then governor of northeastern Iran. He had received imperial chinaware which was obtained via trade, as the part of the Silk Route from China to Central Asia would pass through modern-day Iran. The gifts he received were refined pieces of Chinese white stoneware covered with a transparent glossy coating. In awe of its sophistication and quality, the caliph and soon, the Abbasids too demanded more of those products, which ultimately led Iraqi artists and potters to experiment to achieve the same quality of tableware. With limited knowledge and local resources, they failed to find the correct equipment, so they focused on making them visually similar. In this process, they found that using a local white glaze (now known to be tin glaze) would be the best option. Later they painted designs on their products using a blue glaze, which was also similar to the colour of the caliphate. This imitation became widely popular in Abbasid. The discovery of sea routes connecting Iraq and China confirms the trade of ceramics in that era.

Abbasid Bowl from 9th Century
Abbasid Bowl from 9th Century. Notice the decoration with blue pigment and the off-white background. Image credit: Harvard Art Museums

The Abbasid imitations reached China within the next few centuries via the same trading routes and inspired Chinese artists to add detailed designs with the unique blue pigment too.

During this period, the Chinese were making porcelain products but, they weren’t exporting them yet.

By the 14th century, during the reign of the Ming dynasty, stoneware finally replaced porcelain for export and the Chinese were importing blue pigment from Persia, as the material was easily available there for use in their porcelain wares. Over the next few centuries, China was trading these commodities all over the world notably to Europe, Persia, South East Asia, and Japan among more.

Chinese Blue and White Porcelain
Chinese Blue and White Porcelain. Notice the shade of white as compared to the Abbasid bowl. Image credit: Gardiner Museum

In the early 17th century, blue and white porcelain arrived in the Netherlands due to piracy. A Dutch fleet had seized a Portuguese ship where pieces of ceramics were found. These pieces were auctioned off in South Holland to interested parties from all over Europe. The method was repeated in the year following the capture. Yet another Portuguese merchant ship was seized in present-day Malaysia where thousands of pieces of blue and white Chinese porcelain were found and were auctioned again.

The buyers were simply fascinated by the glaze, the white background, and the intricate decorations. It was exotic and had never seen before. It was beautiful yet functional for storage and dining.  So, by mid 17th century, Dutch traders attempted to acquire more of these ceramic wares to sell to the European market. After all, it was a profitable, luxurious commodity, high in demand.

If, at this point, you are wondering what difference there may be between Porcelain and Ceramics? The following should help you out:

Ceramics: Inorganic materials that undergo permanent change upon heating in high temperatures. Clay and glaze are ceramic materials as they change permanently once baked. So, both porcelain and earthenware are technically ceramics.

Porcelain: It can generally be defined as glazed ceramics made primarily with clay containing kaolin, feldspar, silica, and other minerals. It is heated in high temperatures to produce durable, non-porous and refined objects in shades of white.

Delft’s relation to the History of Delftware

Delft was established in 1100 and along with it, a canal line was also dug up. This was one of the first canals to be dug in the Netherlands for the purpose of drainage and transport. Over the next few centuries, more canals were built connecting to other towns and cities. In fact, the word Delft comes from the Dutch word ‘delven’ which means to dig, referring to digging the canal lines. Those canals were used for trade, sewage management, drainage, transport, and defence. This made Delft one of the ideal places for trade-in that era, which they’ve actively participated in since the 13th century.

Additionally, in the 16th century, potters and artists from Belgium were imitating Italian and Spanish earthenwares in Spain but they were soon forced to escape from the Spanish inquisition a few decades later. These artists re-assembled in Delft and began imitating the newly popular Chinese blue and white porcelain as they couldn’t understand the chemical composition of the foreign material at the time.

The necessity of Delftware 

Among other items, the Dutch merchants had brought back tea from their trades but did not have the appropriate vessels to drink from. As such, the Delft potters manufactured the necessary vessels, imitating the style of Chinese blue and white porcelain.

Moreover, the production of original Chinese blue and white porcelain was cut short after the fall of the Ming dynasty in the 17th century. Once the Qing dynasty took over their policies over factories created many issues which hampered productivity and quality of products. As such, the Dutch were looking into other markets such as Japan and Persia, however, they too were producing mere imitations. This would explain why the Dutch couldn’t simply import more Chinese porcelain instead of producing their own.

The evolution from Chinese porcelain to Delft Blue 

Though the art form was originally mastered by the Chinese, once it was adopted by the Dutch, it became a symbol of their own identity. The Delft potters would paint their own designs in cobalt blue. They’d paint local symbols such as tulips, oranges, windmills, Dutch countrysides, local motifs, royal symbols, etc.

The shapes had evolved to an extent. Tableware was still circular but figurines and other objects shaped into local animals and flowers, or more traditional structures. Sometimes these shapes were combined to create a unique shape. This would depend on the craftsmanship of the potter.

Furthermore, the materials used were completely different, therefore, an imitation. The kaolin clay used for Chinese porcelain was not available in the Netherlands so, the local potters would use clay that would have yellow or reddish hues once baked. This was then coated with thick tin glaze then baked again at a high temperature reaching 1000 degrees Celsius. The same tin glaze that the Abbasids had used. It had made its way to the Netherlands from the Middle East via Italy and Belgium, referring to the escapees from Spain who had assembled in Delft.

Delftware. Image Credit: Pinterest

The Manufacturing Process Briefly Explained

Baking ceramics takes up a lot of space and time to complete. More specifically, a fortnight. Due to this reason, they were produced in factories located in big complexes with the necessary materials and equipment. There would be several kilns, and in some, storage spaces, spaces to wash clay, areas dedicated to selling the earthenware and spaces for drying. Every artist had their specialized skills and was delegated a specific step in the process.

The first step was to mix the clay. These clays were mostly sourced locally, and other times they’d be sourced from regions in Germany or England.

Next, the clay would be cleaned in designated spaces within the complex. The washing would further mix the clay together.

The clay was then dried till solid to be stored. Once ready for use, the clay would be kneaded with feet, till malleable again.

Then, the clay would be shaped into vessels, figurines, or tiles and handles. Moulds were used for more common shapes but, the rest were done by hand. Once shaped, they were left to dry till all the moisture would evaporate.

The objects were then fired in a kiln at high temperatures till hard. The temperatures would depend on the type of clay used but, on average, they would reach 1000 degrees Celsius.

The wares were brushed and dipped in a tin glaze. Painters would then paint traditional motifs with cobalt oxide, sourced from Germany. The whole object would then be coated in a lead glaze for the final touch and fired in the kiln again, sometimes for days.

Kiln at Delft Factory 18th Century
18th Century Delft Kiln. Image credit : Delfts Aardewerk

Once cooled it would turn the tin glaze white, the cobalt oxide into blue pigment and the lead glaze to the glistening layer protecting the final product. The second firing and, the cooling process required a lot of care, crucial to producing an unblemished product.

Identifying true Delftware

As tin glaze was also used in other European and Dutch regions. Imitations and variations of Delftware were emerging in the area but, only the products that were made in Delft were considered true Delftware. To authenticate this, the potters would often but not necessarily paint their brand at the bottom of products, along with the name of the location where they were made. However, with time, many producers even outside Delft would claim their products to be from Delft as they too would paint the name of the location.

Luckily, the technique to make true Delftware would not successfully bind the glaze and clay, as such, the glaze with chip off. This default, therefore, acts as an indicator to identify antique Delftware.

True Delftware
Image of true Delftware where the glaze has chipped off revealing the yellow tinted clay. Image credit: Delfts Aadewerk

Cultural Significance 

The Delft Blue were imitations of Chinese products. However, they were the best in Europe. So much so that royals from around the world would order them. With time, it became popular amongst the rich too, as an item to advertise their wealth. They would often own collections of the authentic Delft Blue only for this purpose.

As mentioned earlier, Delft city is also associated with the reigning house of Orange-Nassau. Mary II of England married Dutch Prince William of the house of Orange-Nassau; later they became King and Queen of England.  As queen in the 17th century, Mary II had been captivated by the Chinese blue and white. The couple collected many objects from China, but they also began to admire the works of local artists in Delft and began collecting those too, closer to home. She had the palaces decorated with Delftware, placed custom orders for her personal collection.

Her orders encouraged developments in production techniques and commissioned the most intricate designs. Her demand for the product popularized it even further and soon became a symbol of the Dutch heritage and identity due to its relation to Dutch history.

Blue and White Flower Pyramids
Delft Blauw Flower Pyramid from the collection of Mary II of England. Gerrit Schreurs via BBC

Significance to Delft

Being the site of origin of this magnificent Dutch artform, it holds high heritage value and encourages tourism. Tourists visit in hopes of purchasing authentic Delftware; see the manufacturing process, indulge in the rich culture and relax.

Evolution of Delftware 

The earlier types of Delftware were always blue and white however, later in the years, there were variations where the earthenware would be decorated using different colours. Black Delftware is one such uncommon preciosity.

Overtime the manufacturing process altered and eventually stopped. The method used between 1620 to 1850 is the authentic antique. This was also the period of peak production, where there were 33 factories to produce Delftware in Delft alone. By the early 19th century, Delft blue was no longer in demand and factories shut down soon after. Demand was revived in the late 19th century as collectors took the 17th-century Dutch version of Chinese blue and white porcelain into interest again, thus regenerating its trend. After that point, it was seen as a Dutch product rather than an imitation.

Today, only a few original Delftware remain in Delft. However, there are still a few certified pottery all over the country that still manufacture.

Relevant Places to Visit in Delft

The Royal Delft factory: Since 1653 the remaining producers of antique Delftware in Delft. Through a guided tour, experience the craftsmanship of the potters firsthand and find out more about Delftware. Official website here.

The Blue Tulip: It is a shop and a small Delftware factory in Delft that manufactures their Delftware in-house using traditional techniques and designs. Their artists are vigorously trained by master painters before they start producing the pottery. Official website here.

Lambert van Meerten Museum: Exhibits a collection of artworks including Delftware and original collections of Chinese porcelain.

Market square: Main square and the heart of Delft. The square houses several small shops and is a standard venue for local events. It is within walking distance of the Nieuwe Kerk or New Church, constructed in the 15th century, and Delft City Hall.

Delft Market Square.
Image of the Delft Market Square. Photo by Folco Masi on Unsplash

The Old Canal:  Narrow waterways located in Delft in close proximity to the more popular attractions in the city.

Vermeer centre: As this post is relevant to the arts, I would recommend you to visit this centre dedicated to Johannes Vermeer, the world-renowned painter from Delft. Click here to visit the official site.

The Netherlands is an extremely popular tourist destination in the world. Urban cities, Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam, attract important tourists important, but it is in these smaller but important cities where the genuine personality of the country is highlighted. Extravagance lies in the richness of culture too, and Delft is definitely one of those places where you can experience that.

Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments and click here for more articles like this.


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