When people think of Dutch culture, they invariably conjure images of majestic windmills, sunlit canals, the works of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, fields of tulips, millions of bicycles and, of course, Delft Blue pottery.
Though Delft Blue pottery had its heyday between 1640 and 1740, the Dutch began making pottery of the tin-glazed variety as early as 1570. Though it’s often confused with porcelain, Delftware is actually made from a blend of three different clays, one from Delft, one from Tournai and one from the Rhineland.
Interestingly, it was actually the Chinese that inspired the creation of Delftware as we know it today. The story goes that back in the 17th century, The Dutch East India Company imported millions of pieces of Chinese porcelain. The Dutch fell in love with the artform and had a deep admiration for the workmanship and attention to detail in each piece.
The steady flow of porcelain from China came to an abrupt halt in 1620 following the death of the Wanli Emperor. Opportunistic Dutch potters seized this opportunity and began to work in earnest to create a cheaper local alternative. The Chinese artworks were dutifully re-created alongside religious motifs and typical Dutch scenes of windmills, fishing boats, hunting expeditions and seascapes.
A lesser-known fact about Delft Blue pottery is that not all of it is blue. In the 1700s, many factories experimented with a number of colours and even gilding. Delftware ranges from vases to sets of jugs and plates and to more tiles than you could shake a stick at (roughly 800 million!).
Ironically, Delftware because so popular at one point that is was widely exported all over not just Europe, but all the way back to China and even Japan. The style caught on and in a bizarre twist of fate, the Chinese started imitating the Delft Blue style and then importing it back to Europe!
Sadly, Delft Blue’s popularity started to decline in the 1700s due to the renewed availability of Chinese porcelain and the rise of the English Wedgwood and European porcelain industries. By 1840, only one of the 32 earthenware factories established in Delft remained – De Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles, or “Royal Delft”, which has produced Delftware uninterrupted for 365 years.
If not for a certain Joost Thooft, the engineer who bought the Royal Delft factory in 1876, there is a good chance that the modern production of Delftware may have halted completely. When the popularity of Delftware declined, the owner of the Royal Delft factory had to abandon the time-honoured Delft Blue production method in favour of printed, mass-produced pieces.
However, Joost took over the factory with the express purpose of reviving the old hand-painted method of production. To revive the popularity of Delftware he realized he needed to change up the mixture of clay that had traditionally been used in order to create stronger, white earthenware that resembled the quality of what the English were making.
His product achieved worldwide fame and as a means of thanking him for reviving the fame of Delft and its ceramics industry, the predicate “Royal” was added to the factory’s name and the rest, as they say, was history.