In the 17th century, Delft, home to Vermeer and where William of Orange was assassinated, was a prosperous town due to the Dutch East India Company trading with the Far East. So it could perhaps be anticipated that when the Dutch discovered Chinese porcelain they saw an opportunity to create similar items of their own.
In 1653 Anthonisz van der Pieth transformed his house into an earthenware factory. Early attempts were rather crude – the raw material the Chinese used was not available locally. But soon, with the perseverance at which the Dutch still excel today, results came quickly.
In an era when tradesmen and shopkeepers hung original paintings, which would later be considered old masters, in their homes, it came as no surprise that earthenware also became popular. In Delft alone thirty-two factories competed with what is now the Royal Delft Porcelain factory, which is the only one to have survived.
Though the façade of the factory looks rather plain and uninteresting, just beyond the reception there a spectacular, monumental staircase entirely made of earthenware, reminiscent of the style of Lutyens and Rennie Mackintosh. From there it was a few steps out into a cloister-style courtyard garden displaying architectural examples of arches, fountains and ornaments that could be used in or on buildings, including churches.
By the 19th century the Delft Blue earthenware had fallen out of favour. In1876 Joost Thooft, a resourceful man, stepped in to revive the factory’s fortunes. He diversified the Royal Delft’s output from domestic table and decorative ware to architectural designs which allowed him to revitalise the company.
As we made our way through the warren of rooms we came upon a master painter, sitting by a window, brushes in hand, busy painting an enormous vase with the classic black cobalt oxide that magically transforms into the signature ‘Delft Blue’ when fired. She told us that it takes up to ten years to master the techniques and all the styles.
Further along, in the museum section, we admired beautiful earthenware from all periods of the factory’s history – huge jars, bulbous vases, tulip towers, plates, bowls and dishes and huge copies of famous 17th century paintings reproduced in blue on white tiles. There was a recreation of what Vermeer’s Delft dining room may have looked like and a collection of china from the Dutch Royal palaces.
The many commemorative plates on display include not only those issued for Royal events, but also the first man on the moon, as well as some for the air force, shipping companies and other events.
Further along, on the factory floor, calm reigns as the workers carefully handle moulds and hundreds of items in their first ‘biscuit’ form, one of the stages of production.
We were taken to see the paint workshop which is not on the normal tour for visitors. In what seemed more like an open plan office environment, with plants and personal belongings on each painter’s small desk, expert artists work side by side with apprentices, teaching them the skills needed to become a master porcelain decorator.
Recently the team of about fifteen was enlarged as the market has picked up substantially in the past few years, possibly through the recent arrival of Chinese tourists hungry for fine craftsmanship in a style they find familiar.
In the huge shop at the end of the visit pieces are on sale for from a few Euros to over €27,000 for famous 17th century Dutch paintings elaborately copied by hand onto tiles and assembled into large, framed panels.
A visit to Delft would not be complete without spending a good hour in this iconic and world famous factory, and that visit would not be complete without a cup of coffee from the very smart café taken on the terrace in the beautiful cloistered garden. Astrid Burchardt September 2017