15 Jun 2015

The Tile Files: Delftware

Welcome to Mirabelle's monthly design series, The Tile Files. Last month we felt blue for all the right reasons and thought we should this month too. After our Spanish and Portuguese Azulejo escapade, we are now heading north to The Netherlands to uncover a technique that made the town of Delft renowned the world over. Then our decorative arts exploration will take us Channel-hopping. Delftware is a hand-painted decorative technique on tin-glazed pottery that translates not only to tilework but also homewares, down to pictorial plates and the humble teapot!

Rijksmuseum (1700-1740)

There is an interesting link between Azulejo and Delft. Their cobalt blue decorative patterns on neutral white background trace their influence back to the Far East, China's Ming Dynasty porcelain. The Dutch East India Company (founded in 1602) traded with the Far East and would import the blue-patterned ornate porcelain, now a sought-after luxuryware that graced the homes of the nobility.

Rijksmuseum (circa 1690)

However during the course of The Dutch Golden Age (17th century), a shift was made towards the manufacture of a Dutch interpretation of the Chinese ware translated as 'Chinese style', rather than rely solely on costly imports that made it too exclusive and priced out the less wealthy segments of the population. The decision was also a result of Chinese exports ceasing with the death of the Wanli Emperor (1620).

Rago Arts Auctions

This heralded the advent of Delftware, an adaptation of Chinese decorative arts now featuring endearing pastoral scenes of Holland and surrounds, hand-crafted locally. Cobalt blue was defined as Delft Blue. In the space of two centuries, it is believed that 800 million Delft tiles were produced. Delftware became very popular, and was exported to Europe and as far away as... China and Japan! The Delftware technique developed outside of Holland. English Delftware is a beautiful example of this expansion, as testified in the example below (dated 1765), through the woodblock process which sped up considerably tile design, in line with the industrial revolution gathering momentum.

Martyn Edgell Antiques

By the mid-18th century, the once prosperous Delft's earthenware industry was increasingly being met with the stiff competition from porcelain clay in Europe, and in particular white-baking clay, which lent itself to a more streamlined process and versatility of uses. Meanwhile mass-production resulted in standardisation of artistic value (lack of innovation), accelerating the sharp decline of Delftware production after 1750 and the Dutch potteries closing down one after the other.

The only two potteries to have survived to this day are Royal Delft (Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles), the very last earthenware factory in Delft, which has been operating since 1653. The other Delftware company is Royal Tichelaar Makkum, the oldest in existence, based in Makkum, and believed to have been active since 1572.

Douglas Watson Studio
Despite its changing fortunes, Delftware has remarkably survived to the present day, where it still symbolises Holland, and where it is still being produced. A trip to Amsterdam in 2008 confirmed its popularity to me, beyond the clichés of the city centre tourist office shop. The colour scheme in itself has a timeless appeal that is unmatched by other colour schemes. Besides it is comforting to see that the Delft pottery tiles are still being manufactured, and not just in the windmill country, but also across the Channel, in England, at The Douglas Watson Studio for instance, where they are handmade, using traditional processes, with crackled glaze option for time patina effect.

Paul Bommer's Beesskep Tile

In 2012, English illustrator and print-maker Paul Bommer let his wit loose through a collection of 120 Faux Delft tiles - that celebrate English Delftware heritage - and which he designed as part of a display project set in the living room of an 18th century house. Much of his tile work was directly inspired by stories published in Spitafields Life about local London figures, including Steve Benbow, the urban beekeeper.

The Oct-Nov 2013 edition of Air France magazine celebrated the design-led revival of Blue Delft in its La Note Bleue article, paying tribute to the likes of interior designer Marcel Wanders c/o Hotel Andaz Amsterdam and architect Clément Blanchet c/o Parisian kebab house Grillé. Cf magazine article (page 122 + page 123) in PDF format.

Andaz Amsterdam

That's it from Delftware but that's not it from The Tile Files, as more jolly antics are to be had next month where we will rewind the time machine all the way to Antiquities, and applaud how those neat little squares of colour joined at the hip are still hip to this day: Mosaics!

Sources: (1-2) Via Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam). (1) Delftware Teapot (1700-1740). (2) Two plaques from a Column, De Grieksche A pottery factory, by artist Adrianus Kocx (circa 1690). The plaques were part of the wall decoration in the Water Gallery at Hampton Court Palace, the London residence of William and Mary. The Water Gallery was demolished shortly after Mary’s sudden death in 1692. The plaques were probably removed at that time and ended up on the market. The elaborate motifs and intricate friezes echo Azulejo panels on Portuguese church or castle edifices, and contrast with the pared-down simplicity of 'cheaper' yet still remarkable Delftware processes. (3) Four Delft Tiles, mounted, circa 17th-18th century, auctioned off via Rago Arts Auctions. (4) Liverpool Delft Tile with woodblock print, circa 1765, via Martyn Edgell Antiques. Woodblock print allowed for the mass-produced design of tiles, a cheaper and less labour-intensive process than hand-design. (5) Delft Full Landscape Tile (Ref: DEL19-01), depicts a bygone rural scene, yet handmade today by Douglas Watson Studio, Oxfordshire, England. (6) Beesskep Umbra Tile, one of 120 Faux Delft Tiles designed by English artist Paul Bommer, back in 2012. (7) Interior designer Marcel Wanders celebrated Delftware with a twist when designing the interiors of Hyatt Hotel Andaz Amsterdam, proving that Delftware can well rock timeless beyond eccentric!

21-Jun-2016 Update: The townscape painting 'View of houses in Delft, known as The Little Street' by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) shall provide you with an idea of what the town of Delft looked like, circa 1658. Picture via the Google Art Project. The original oeuvre may be viewed at the Rijksmuseum. Meanwhile find out about the solving of the painting's mystery and thus which street in modern day Delft actually relates to the painting. Fascinating!

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