A ceramic blueprint story

Probably one of the more recognisable items from the Netherlands, next to windmills and wooden shoes of course, is Delftware; White ceramics with a blue print.

But what is this Delftware? Basically it’s a rip-off copycat from Eastern porcelain, finding its roots in Delft in the early 17th century.
Why Delft? Because they won the contest of Master forger and therefore earned the ‘right’ to produce the ceramics which later became the famous Dutch Delftware.

© image: vannieantiquairs.com

© image: vannieantiquairs.com

The Rise

In 1602 the Dutch established the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (East India Company) to carry out trade activities with Asia. One of the treasures this company brought home was Chinese porcelain, covered with blue paintings. Of course this was only reserved for the wealthy. To be able to provide blue painted white porcelain to the ‘less fortunate’, pottery makers started to experiment in reproducing this beautiful Chinese product.

At the end of the 17th century over 30 potteries were competing in producing high quality blue painted white ceramics, representing the Chinese porcelain. To identify the designer/manufacturer, all potteries were given a special mark.

The technique

At the time, the only technique known for pottery was called majolica. Majolica is the name for rough and fragile clay ceramics. Basically this sort of ceramics was not suitable to substitute Chinese porcelain, but later we discovered that there was a technique — called faience — to produce a non-transparant white pottery glaze, suitable for painted decoration.
Using this technique on Majolica kickstarted the counterfeiting process and Dutch Delftware was born. The first reproductions were one-on-one copies from the Chinese porcelain, including the Chinese scenery. Later typical Dutch topics — like windmills, farmers and tulips — replaced the Chinese drawings. This became the Delftware as we know it today.

Over a 200 year period when Delftware was produced, techniques improved and the quality of Delftware became better, including the complexity of the paintings. They became true masterpieces and at some point the unthinkable happened; Chinese and Japanese potters created Delftware from porcelain to export back to Europe.
In my book that’s called; success.

The Fall

But it wasn’t to last. Early 19th century the Delftware industry collapsed due to;
– the import of cheap and good quality English Wedgwood
– porcelain becoming very cheap
– lack of innovation amongst Dutch potters


© image: Google.com

So where does that leave us today?
– On one hand we have a fantastic legacy with genuine 17th and 18th century ceramics
– On the other hand we have our modern day souvenir industry with only kitch objects (see picture above).

Even our National (well, not anymore actually) airline company KLM gives away miniature Delft blue houses to any intercontinental business class traveller. These houses contain young Jenever, manufactured by Bols. Almost 100 different houses have been developed since KLM started this tradition in 1952.

I have no doubt tourists love our souvenir ceramics. But it has no connection to the original Delftware, even though it started out as a cheap rip-off industry. But then again, probably every country has something similar which has souvenir-ised. So what’s the big deal, right?


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