Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen
It looks so easy. It is just a small circle in a corner. But at that moment when my brush reaches a sort of inflexion point and its hairs suddenly switch side, it all goes wrong and I break the regular contour. There is no room for a single mistake though: the porous material absorbs the paint and I cannot correct my lines. My only option is to somewhat transform it into another motif, which, given my drawing skills is not really an option either!
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A few moments ago, before visiting the earthenware factory, I observed a master painter decorating a large vase with such dexterity. No wonder it takes a minimum of 8 to 10 years of practice to an already gifted artist to reach this level. I focus back on my small tile on which I try to reproduce the typical Dutch boat that I thought was very adapted to this Royal Delft workshop here at the factory where the Delftware has been made for centuries. Thankfully, I had a bit of help with the design that was transferred onto my tile in light pencil patterns by my patient teacher. Still, following the lines and respecting the shades by diluting the paint properly is such a challenge… and I am only facing one of the many aspects of the complexity of crafting the precious Delft Blue earthenware!
The production process
The famous Delft Blue earthenware all find the start of their existence in a plaster mould filled with liquid clay. The clay itself is a mix of various materials to allow for rather thin shapes to be made. After a short time, the water of the clay is absorbed by the plaster. When the clay layer is thick enough, the mould is opened and the clay piece taken out. This proof is smoothed off before being dried and undergoing its first heat treatment in a kiln to obtain what is referred to as the biscuit. To ease the application of the paint, a layer of liquid clay (called engobe) covers the piece, creating a white surface.
Then the painter can start: using charcoal, some lines are drawn (they will disappear when the piece is fired) for guidance. Then, the secret paint mix based on cobalt oxide is applied to decorate the piece. Many brushes of various thicknesses are used, and the shades are obtained by diluting the paint with more or less water. Whether traditional themes such as windmills, flowers and sailboats, that tend to be favoured by tourists, or more modern patterns that please the Dutch, the painter hand-paints every piece, that will then be signed.
Another type of Delft Blue, more affordable, is created by transferring a pre-designed motif onto the piece, whether a plate, tile or else.
In order to differentiate both, I took a good look at the nuances of two vases that my guide showed me in the factory. The hand-painted one can be recognized by its infinity of shades, marks of brush strokes and tiny imperfections. The easier way? I turned around the vase to look for the trademark: a hand-painted motif by Royal Delft is signed by a characteristic jar symbol, the JT initials and the hand written word “Delft”. The transfer pieces display the Royal Delft 1653 factory mark. With the knowledge gained during this engaging factory and museum visit, I could already distinguish both delftwares!
Either way, a glazing is applied to the piece which drawings look black: it is only after being fired at 1,200ºC that the familiar blue taints will appear by chemical reaction.
The Delft Blue is ready!
A brief history of the Delft Blue
In the late 13th century, Marco Polo lands in China. He discovers the blue and white delicate porcelain that has been made there for centuries using a specific clay. In 1603, during the Dutch Golden Age, a Portuguese vessel transporting such precious and expensive porcelain back from the Far East is captured by the Dutch East India Company (the VOC). Appreciated by the people from Delft, the VOC decides to import it. However, the Chinese porcelain is hardly affordable, even by the upper class. As the same clay was out of reach, local workshops decide to copy the ceramics using pieces of earthenware dipped in white glaze to imitate the exclusive Chinese porcelain. In 1653, Royal Blue is founded. By 1695, there are 32 earthenware factories in the booming town of Delft!
In the 1800’s, the competition from the British creamware superior products (Wedgewood) puts most Dutch factories out of business, but Royal Blue. Taken over by Joost Thooft in 1876, a local engineer inspired by English production methods: the trademark is registered and in 1919, Royal Blue becomes Royal Delft. The hand-signature still pays tribute to Joost with the JT initials.
If the name of the factory has been changed, the manufacturing method has remained unchanged for centuries and the craft has been passed down from generation to generation.
In the Netherlands, the Delft Blues are so popular that almost every household displays at least a piece. And of course, the highest profile Dutch family, the royal family, regularly commissions exclusive tableware to Royal Delft. If you are to be invited to an official dinner to the royal palace, most likely, you will eat in delicate and unique hand-made Delft Blues by Royal Delft!
Ceramics, porcelain or Delft Blue?
Ceramics is a term that covers the entire practice of working with clay, at all temperature ranges, glaze types and clay body colours.
Porcelain is a term given by Marco Polo to describe Chinese pottery. It refers to a specific type of clay (kaolin or China clay) leading to a non-porous body that is fired at very high temperatures (1,300°C to 1,500°C).
Earthenware is a type of ceramics using a porous material that is fired and that must be glazed to make it watertight, such as Delft Blues.
- Royal Delft organizes workshops during which one can decorate a tile or a plate, either in blue paint to leave with it, or in the actual black cobalt paint that will require heat treatment and 24 hours before being picked up: the perfect excuse to spend a night in town!
- If you do not have time for a workshop, the museum and factory visit of Royal Delft are very interactive and interesting!
- Should you want to bring a souvenir back from Royal Delft, pay attention to the JT signature for original and unique hand-painted pieces or the Royal Delft logo for less valuable transfer earthenware.
- Before throwing away an old Delft Blue, check it thoroughly! Ancient pieces that are very valuable today were not signed, and every factory would mark differently.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!