‘Delft Mania’ more than a fad

 Gay Guthrie

Delft is known for its blue and white colour combination. (STEFANIE MOY-SHUSTER/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES)

Delft is known for its blue and white colour combination. (STEFANIE MOY-SHUSTER/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES)

Delft Mania was all the rage in the summer of 1896, even though Munsey’s Magazine’s “Latest Fads” columnist was slightly less than enthusiastic: “The craze for Delft has reached such a point that the journals which tell you how to paint a drainage tile blue and border it with apple blossoms as a receptacle for umbrellas are getting out Delft Supplements showing the amateur exactly how to turn the commonest white china into the favourite brand. Supposedly, the only thing necessary is to have blue windmill painted on it … Everything that can possibly be twisted into a decoration is destined to be pictured in amateur Delft before the wave passes by …”

Fortunately, in the 19th century, there were also lovely pieces of real Delft to be had, as the plaques and tile seen here show — heirs to the rich tradition of blue and white tin glazed ceramics for which the city of Delft has been known since the 17th century.

Delft was a bustling, small city near Rotterdam, connected to the sea by the River Schie, surrounded by high walls and bisected by canals, making it virtually a city of small islands. Until the beginning of the 17th century, it was known for beer brewing in its 100-plus breweries and was also an early centre for the production of earthenware, which was made of the local reddish clay, minimally decorated and with a transparent lead glaze. As European trade routes opened in the early 16th century, sophisticated Italian ceramics, known as majolica, made their way north, as did Italian potters who came to work in the Netherlands, with one opening his own works in Antwerp as early as 1500. Antwerp was sacked by the Spanish in 1576 and many artisans fled north to towns like Haarlem, Dordrecht and Delft, where they found work in Dutch potteries. But, more importantly, they brought with them the methods and technical expertise that allowed the area, and particularly the city of Delft, to become the leading centre of ceramic production in the Netherlands.

Unlike simple lead-glazed wares, Italian majolica was tin-glazed with a mixture of sand, salt, soda, smalt (pounded cobalt), copper and tin ash. This mixture, when fired on a piece of earthenware, produced a hard, beautifully white glaze, which was then typically decorated in a variety of lively colours before firing the piece again to fix the decoration.

Serendipitously, the Dutch mastery of the Italian tin-glaze technique coincided with the arrival of early blue and white Chinese porcelain in the Netherlands in the 17th century. It was first shipped as ballast in Dutch East India Company trading ships or used en route to Europe for trade, but when pieces began to be unloaded in the Netherlands, it soon became so fashionable, it was imported in its own right to grace the homes of wealthy Dutch families. Chinese porcelain was expensive and the Delft potters saw the opportunity their new mastery of the pure white tin glaze provided when pieces were decorated to imitate Chinese designs. They produced a wide variety of forms, from tableware to special vases for tulips, water cisterns, sets of decorative pots and jars, urns and many other useful items, but for many potteries, the bread and butter was tiles and decorative plaques.

Tiles were particularly popular because they were not only beautiful but practical. One of their earliest uses was as skirting boards to help prevent water from floor washing being splashed up on the white plaster walls found in many Dutch houses. Pictures such as Johannes Vermeer’s A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal show tiles this way. As the merchant class became wealthier, tiles were used around fireplaces or composed into elaborate, decorative wall panels. Round plaques were mounted around doorways or set just below the ceiling like a cornice.

Early tiles and plaques were decorated with Chinese style designs in a particularly beautiful, deep blue (which is still known as Delft Blue), but as their use increased, the subject matter changed and scenes from everyday life like men and women at work or children playing became common. Biblical scenes were often portrayed, as were flowers and fruits. Large panels were assembled on the jigsaw puzzle principle, with each tile bearing a part of the overall design. Sailing ships, landscapes, windmills and important local buildings were also popular subjects.

The quantity and quality of 17th- and 18th-century Delftware is astonishing. It has been estimated more than 800 million tiles were produced in this period, and such was its prestige that blue and white wares from Delft were widely exported throughout Europe and some even found their way back to China.

However, by the mid-18th century, the market for blue and white Delft was in decline. The secrets of porcelain had been discovered at Meissen, and the Staffordshire potters in England were producing excellent new types of white earthenware. Most of the more than 30 potteries that flourished in Delft closed by the beginning of the 19th century, but Porceleyne Fles, The Porcelain Bottle, founded in 1653, remained. In 1876, it was bought by Joost Thooft, who revitalized the works, reintroducing the lovely tiles, plaques and decorative pieces that had been so much in demand in the previous centuries.

Four examples from the 1880s are seen here — all beautifully hand painted but now on harder, more porcelain-like clay than the earlier earthenware. The plaque at the top left shows the Nieuwe Kirk in Delft, while the other two and the tile have typical scenes of sailing ships and windmills based on earlier designs. In the 19th century, top-quality pieces like these were hand painted, although Thooft was also forward thinking and canny enough to realize transfer printing was a more economical method of decoration, which could be mass produced quickly and sold inexpensively to satisfy (or perhaps create) the Delft Mania that so horrified the columnist in Munsey’s Magazine.

Early Delft was not generally marked, but after 1879, Thooft instituted a system of marks that include a painted jar shape with a stylized JT below it and then the word Delft in script. The painter’s initials appear in blue glaze and there is an impressed date mark that is based on letters of the alphabet. Until the turn of the 20th century, the same rich, deep “Delft Blue” was the only blue used and the background was a warm white, but then the blue changed to a harder, sharper, lighter shade and the background became a crisp white. Later pieces will have printed rather than hand-painted marks.

While 17th-century Delft may be out of reach for most collectors, beautifully hand-painted 19th-century pieces like these can still be found for those who delight in the beauty of that perennial favourite — blue and white.

Gay Guthrie has an extensive background in antiques and the decorative arts. She can be reached at

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