Dutch Pottery

Most people would recognise Delft earthenware pottery with its famous blue and white design; it's been a favourite throughout Holland and the world since way back in the 16th century. For two hundred years between 1600 and 1800 it was a very covetable item, with rich families often acquiring vast collections of pieces. However, by the 19th century it began to lose some of its appeal due to both the changing tastes of the consumers and competition from other factories that produced different designs. Today, from the original sixty two factories only one, Royal Delft, remains.

History of Delft

In the mid 16th century, Dutch potters in Antwerp started to copy the 'Majolica' style of glazed pottery which was produced in both Spain and Italy, but after the Spanish occupied Antwerp in 1585, the potters were forced to flee to other parts of the country to carry on their work. By 1600, the Dutch East Indian Company started to import porcelain from China which became very popular with the people of Holland. Realising the popularity of this new porcelain pottery, the potters of Delft changed their focus to this blue and white style to keep up with demand. The items they produced were a cheaper version of the Chinese porcelain, using tin glazed clay instead of porcelain, but proved to be extremely successful. In fact they were so successful that by the end of the century, Delft pottery was being produced by no less than sixty two factories, many of which set up home in former disused breweries.

Delft Production

Delft pottery is traditionally blue and white, although some pieces do incorporate multi-coloured designs. To achieve the white background, white baking clay is used (usually a mixture of many different substances including kaolin, chalk, feldspar and quartz), which comes from Germany, England, Norway, France and the Czech Republic. Unfortunately Dutch clay doesn't burn white when fired, but turns red or yellow instead.

This clay is mixed with water and the liquid clay poured into a Plaster of Paris mould which, due to its very porous nature, helps to dry the clay by absorbing the water. Within thirty minutes the clay will have dried to a thickness of 4mm and at this point the moulds are inverted to release the excess 'wet' clay. Four hours later, it's dry enough to release the mould and reveal the beginnings of the piece. This is then trimmed with a knife and smoothed with a wet sponge, before being left to dry completely. After three days, the item will be ready to be fired in an electric heated kiln at 1040o C. During this process the clay changes into 'bisquit' and is ready for decoration.

All Delft pieces are hand painted by master craftsmen who produce motifs based on the original Chinese porcelain of the Ming and K'ang Hsi dynasties. Of course, they don't only use oriental designs; it's quite common to find Dutch land and seascapes adorning plates, vases, jars and candleholders; not to mention items produced in the shape of 'clogs' and Dutch cows!  Each item is painstakingly painted using brushes made from squirrel or marten hair and black paint mixed with cobalt oxide. When fired for a second time, the cobalt undergoes a chemical change and produces the typical blue colour. The paints used are water based and so it's possible to create many shades by simply adding different amounts of water. 

Once painted the items are either sprayed or dipped with glaze before undergoing a second firing when the glaze melts into a translucent glassy layer over the now blue design.
Royal Delft

Today the only remaining commercial producer of this blue and white pottery is Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles (The Porcelain Jar) which is more commonly known as Royal Delft. Originally opened in 1653 by David Anthonisz van de Pieth, Royal Delft still produces all its items in line with the traditional techniques, right down the painstaking hand decoration. The company receives over 140,000 visitors a year who come to see the company museum, the factory and of course the showroom. Visitors also get the chance to produce a personal piece of their own by painting a design on a traditional tile.

De Delftse Pauw

On the banks of Canal de Vliet, you'll find De Delftse Pauw (the Delft Peacock) which was established in 1650, where you can now watch the intricate skills of the professional painters as they work on their highly detailed designs.  Open from Monday to Friday every week, De Delftse Pauw conducts free guided tours which will give you a great insight into not only the history of this traditional pottery but will also explain how it's made.  Once again you'll be given the opportunity to produce your own souvenir.

So if you're looking for a traditional piece of Dutch heritage, head to Delft and pick up a piece of blue and white history.