We make no secret of the fact that we love visiting the Netherlands. And one of our most favourite cities is Delft – the city where Vermeer lived and painted and which also specialises in splendid blue and white tiles and pottery – Royal Delft.
Delft is a charming city dating back to about 1075 and which developed along the banks of a canalised waterway conveniently close to both Rotterdam and The Hague. Its picturesque old centre is criss-crossed with leafy waterways linking its main canals, all lined with wonderful architectural gems. Take a canal cruise, hire a bike or walk, its historic centre is a conveniently manageable size.
Churches old and new
Its Old Church (Oude Kerk) dates back to 1246 and the New Church (not so new now) was built in 1496! Delft is associated with royalty and to this day members of the Dutch Royal family (the House of Oranje-Nassau) have been buried in the New Church.
But it is the Old Church that arguably attracts more visitors, as amongst the many famous Dutchmen buried there is possibly its most famous son, the artist – Johannes Vermeer, who created such exquisite masterpieces as the ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and the stunning ‘View of Delft’.
Delft and pottery
However, for many of us it is also the stunning blue and white earthenware – delftware – that lures us to the city. Tin glazed pottery had been made in the Netherlands since 1500.
But it was the Dutch East India Company importing examples of Chinese porcelain in the 17th century that was instrumental in the potters making what we recognise today as delftware.
Chinese porcelain was highly coveted
Chinese porcelain was highly coveted for its delicacy and strength which could withstand hot liquids, (necessary for the highly popular and fashionable beverage – tea) but also because of its exotic designs.
Dutch experiments to produce similar products
However, Chinese porcelain was not readily available and was also extremely costly. The Dutch potters who had produced heavier pottery (majolica) started experimenting in order to make finer variations, modifying the clay they used and covering it with a white tin glaze which could easily be decorated and eventually formed into decorative tiles, dishes and plates.
The designs were chiefly copied from the Chinese imports, but as confidence and skills developed the designs began to include Dutch scenes and occasionally different colours.
Only one of the original potteries left
Over the decades there have been many potteries in Delft. But today only one of the original companies is still operating – the Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles N.V, (Royal Delft) -established in 1653.
It still makes the beautiful Delft Blue porcelain much as it has been made since the 17th century, although in 1876 a certain Joost Thooft took over the factory and modernising the production methods which resulted in better quality Delft Blue products.
How it’s made
The earthenware is made from a variety of materials including clay, china clay/kaolin, quartz and feldspar mixed together and the resulting paste poured into the desired shaped plaster molds, eventually a skin develops which gradually thickens till the desired thickness is reached and it can easily be released from the mold.
Then the work to smooth down and fashion the object to make it ready for its first firing begins.
Why is it Royal Delft?
Following the firing it is the turn of the highly skilled painters to come into their own. Using the finest imaginable brushes and with the steadiest of hands they create in black paint the designs.
Then follows the final firing which, through a chemical reaction, turns the black paint to the blue we associate with Royal Delft – the ‘Royal’ having been given to the factory by the Royal family for its services to Delft and the ceramic industry.
Along with the Original Blue – Blue Delft (Delftware that is hand painted, there is also Blueware – which has been screen printed, and also a range called Blue D1653 which combines Delft Blue designs with innovative Dutch modern design.
A museum and tile painting
The factory also houses a museum displaying tiles, plates and pots through the centuries where visitors can watch the craftsmen and women at work.
You can even paint your own tiles with one of the Royal Delft kits – also obtainable from the online shop. Vermeer might be horrified at my tile depicting his Girl with a Pearl Earring and I am sure he wouldn’t approve either of my equally heavy-handed flower design – I haven’t held a paint brush in decades, and obviously have a lot to learn. But it was fun and maybe I’ll do better next time. A.H
Painting from home tile kits from the Royal Delft online shop: royaldelft.com/en_gb/themes/workshops-at-home/item8184