What strikes most people when they lay eyes on the beautiful blue pottery of Amsterdam is not the blues. This being the place of Delftware, there is indeed a lot of blue pottery to admire: the houses, the clogs, creamers, butter dishes, jars and jugs of all shapes and sizes, plates, candle stands, tiles with seascapes and the ubiquitous windmill, rectangular/square/circular boxes, bric-a-brac galore.
Of course, not everything blue and ceramic in the Netherlands is a Delft product. There are clever copies everywhere—there is Holland pottery, the same beautiful blue as Delft pottery. Those in the know will tell you to look for the Delfts Blauw signage at the base of the pottery, which makes it clear that you are acquiring a genuine piece of Holland’s famous craft.
Back to that lurking thought though: how startlingly similar the Delft blue was to Ming blue, to Chinese pottery, in fact. Well, that mystery is quickly cleared up if one takes the Delft tour; apart from seeing what goes into the making of this world famous pottery, Delft’s China connection is also revealed.
Ironically, the city of Delft, which is now synonymous with the renowned earthenware, was once a thriving centre for breweries. Then a gunpowder facility went up in smoke and fire, thus hastening the decline of breweries. Desperate, the people turned to pottery, setting up kilns in the large premises of former breweries, some even retaining the old brewery names, like the Three Bells and the Double Tankard.
The new venture took off instantly and the rich soon started to collect Delftware. Although the Dutch potters referred to their earthenware as ‘porcelain’, it was actually a cheaper version of the real Chinese porcelain. This was because Delft Blue was not made from the typical porcelain clay, but from a clay mixture covered with a tin glaze after it has come out of the kiln. The use of marl, a type of clay rich in calcium compounds, allowed the Dutch potters to refine their technique and to make exquisite items. Ingeniously, the potters began to coat their pots completely in white tin glaze instead of covering only the painting surface, after which they coated it all with a clear ceramic glaze. This clear glaze gave depth to the fired surface and a smoothness to the cobalt blues, ultimately creating something that closely resembled porcelain. The Asian imageries were deftly replaced with pastoral typically Dutch scenes, all painted entirely by hand, of course.
Soon enough, all of Europe was collecting and showcasing Delftware. Then, in a supreme act of irony, Chinese potters started making ‘delftware’ but in porcelain, to export to Europe. Delft Blue reigned supreme for almost three centuries, and once upon a time, there were 33 factories in Delft. The only one remaining today is Royal Delft, which actually dates back to the 17th century.
Before Delft Blue, Majolica ware was the ceramic ware that caught everyone’s fancy. And by the end of the 18th century, the popularity of Delftware had run its course, and the new kid on the block was English pottery.
And yes, there’s some sort of an India connect too. The Dutch East India Company had a lively trade with the East and imported millions of pieces of Chinese porcelain in the early 17th century. Once that supply of imports came to a standstill, though, Dutch potters started to make their own version.