History Delftware


Earthenware was already produced by people in early history (Egypt, Greece, China and Persia). Initially, the earthenware was unglazed, later on people learned the technique of glazing, in which a layer of semi-transparent lead-glaze was applied in various hues. As a result, the earthenware became stronger as well as water- repelling.

At about 1100 AD, tin-glaze was discovered in Persia. Owing to this, it became possible to provide the earthenware with a white, untransparent layer of glaze. Upon this it was quite feasible to apply a coloured decoration. This was of importance, in order to be able to compete with China, where in the meantime porcelain was made already. This hard, glassy earthenware fired from a mixture of kaolin and veldspar (sorts of clay), was white in colour and decorated in hues.

By way of the Moorish occupation, the tin-glazing technique came to Spain,and from there it became known in Europe. Particularly in Italy, tin-glazing became popular (around 1450). The painted earthenware with tin-glazing applied on one side, was called majolica.

Around 1550, Antwerp was a flourishing port. On account of the growing enlargement of the power of Spain, Antwerp lodged many refugees. Among them there were among others Portuguese Jews and also Italian potters, who were familiar with the tin-glazing technique. From Antwerp, this technique spread northwards, where majolica production was also taking place (Haarlem, Zealand, Delft and Friesland).

In the meantime, the eighty-year war (1568-1648) broke out between The Netherlands and Spain, in which particularly the southern Dutch provinces were occupied by Spain. The north successfully resisted itself against the Spanish army.
When in 1585 Antwerp came under Spanish occupation, the Scheldt estuary was closed off by the Zealanders , who were still free. As a result, the role of Antwerp as a trading and port city was soon over.

The Golden Age; Hey-day of the Northern Netherlands:
The fall of Antwerp implied the transfer of the trading and port activities of The Netherlands to Amsterdam.
In 1602, the powerful V.O.C. (United East-India Company) was established, which soon conquered a monopoly on trade with South-East Asia. Spices and particularly also Chinese porcelain were transported in large quantities to Amsterdam and traded there. In particular the blue decorated porcelain found its way to the evermore affluent middle class and nobility, it became a favourite collector’s item. Mostly special porcelain rooms were arranged in the houses and so-called “Porcelain displays” included the show-pieces of many a collector.
The whole seventeenth century was a period of great wealth for The Netherlands. Other objects of art were also collected. This “Golden” age for that matter was the most famous period in Dutch painting after all.

The rise of Delft-fayance:
The Dutch earthenware industry tried to imitate the ever so popular Chinese porcelain. Potters fled from Antwerp to the North improved the tin-glazing technique, and one succeeded in firing very thin earthenware. This earthenware was covered on all sides with tin-glaze and decorated.
This type of earthenware went into history under the name of fayance; it was primarily produced in Delft but also in Haarlem.

However, competition with the relatively cheap Chinese porcelain remained difficult. This situation, however, changed drastically about 1650.
The Ming dynasty in China tottered. The associated internal wars paralysed the porcelain industry.
The import of porcelain into Amsterdam also stagnated. The demand of the collectors, however, was only growing. The Delft-fayance turned out to be a good substitute. The number of earthenware factories grew quickly, and more was being produced all the time, and the quality was likewise improved as well.
In the initial stage, Chinese porcelain was primarily imitated concerning both form and decoration. One even went so far as to replace lost parts of Chinese porcelain objects by Delft-fayance items. The term “Delft porcelain” was used even, an incorrect name, because it concerned earthenware in fact.
Also when Chinese import restarted, Delft-fayance remained popular. After 1730, a slow decline set in, and after 1830 only a single Delft-ware factory remained.


Although “Delft-fayance” was also made outside Delft (Haarlem), it was indeed Delft that formed the most important centre of production. In the so-called Luke-guild in Delft, a great number of earthenware factories and traders were united. In this way, there were around 1650 in any case sixteen factories known by name such as “De Grieksche A”(The Greek A); “De Dobbelde Schenckan”(The Double Tankard) ; “De Paeuw”(The Peacock); “De Roos” (The Rose); “De Porceleyne Fles” (The Porcelain Bottle); “De Witte Starre” (The White Star); and others.

A number of earthenware factories were established in former breweries, and took over the name of that brewery (e.g. De Witte Starre, De Dobbelde Schenckan)

In the hey-day of the Delft-fayance, the blue decoration (cobalt) was primarily used, which was applied directly onto the layer of tin-glaze that was dried but not yet fired. After that, firing was carried out in a hot oven (more than 900 degrees Celsius). In this way, the decoration became one with the glazing.

Domestic earthenware certainly has been produced by the Delft earthenware factories. Most of this is lost. The famous Delft decorative earthenware is an altogether different story. This was mostly produced only once by order of collectors. It has been preserved for the greater part and kept in private collections, or can be admired in Musea (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam). Delft-war is also exhibited abroad. Famous are the Delft tulip-vases in Hampton Court, London, England.

Sorts of decorative earthenware:
The decorative earthenware can be classed under a number of categories. The most important are:

  • Dinner table service:
    Not somuch plates and dishes, but especially tureens, butter pots, pie tureens, fish plates, cake dishes, spice-boxes, gravy boats and oil and vinegar sets have been preserved.
  • Obelisks
    Around 1600, some Egyptian obelisks were transported to Europe and erected there as statue (Rome). The popularity of the obelisks induced the Delft earthenware potters to make small, blue-decorated obelisks.
  • Jugs:
    Many jugs, certainly those higher than 38 centimetres have been made solely as ornamental object. Many forms have been applied e.g. the form of a ring.
  • Tea (and coffee) sets:
    Tea sets were articles much in demand, due to the increasing culture of drinking tea ( blown over from China). As far as coffee sets are concerned, little is known. Of certain coffee jugs it is not known if they were actually used for coffee. For drinking tea, also hot water kettles on a little tripod were made. These kettles were indeed also used for chocolate.
  • Tobacco earthenware:
    The increasing use of tobacco furnished a number of dishes having scenes relating to the smoking of tobacco. In addition, tobacco pots have been made, which were decorated with tobacco leaves.
  • Cupboard sets:
    Specially for the Dutch cushion-cupboards and cabinets, cupboard sets were produced, mostly consisting of five vases, which could be grouped symmetrically.
  • Chemist’s pots:
    In behalf of the use in chemist’s shops, chemist’s pots and syrup jars were made. Initially with a simple painted on label. Later on the label framework became more and more decorated.
  • Tulip vases:
    Tulip vases form a special category of Delft-ware. At the end of the 16th century, the tulip reached The Netherlands from Turkey. It soon become a fashion flower, for which exorbitant prices were paid. People talked of “The foolish tulip trade”. But also when this fashion whim was over, the tulip , however, remained a popular flower. Still it is not so that the Delft tulip vases were only used for tulips, other flowers were also stuck into the vases. The case is even that some Delft tulip vases, namely the large pyramid-shaped vases were not used as flower vase at all. The vase itself as showpiece was already impressive enough. It has been established that with a number of pyramid-shaped tulip vases the little spouts have been closed up from the inside, so that flowers could not be stuck into them after all. The tulip vase can be characterized as a vase having several little spouts into which flowers can be stuck.

    Tulip vases were very popular at The English Court. This was not surprising because Queen Mary before she became Queen of England, had been living for many years in The Netherlands (Palace Het Loo). She was a collector of Blue Delft-ware and she has taken part of her collection with her to England. The tulip vases at Hampton Court in London are relevant examples. Pyramid-shaped tulip vases are indeed also to be admired in the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam, in the palace Het Loo in Apeldoorn and in the Musee Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire in Brussels. Several types of tulip vases can be distinguished: Simple, low flat vases having an oval or heart-shaped belly. These especially served for being placed on tables or low cupboards.Round tulip vases with or without several storeys. The large specimens solely served as showpieces. Pyramid-shaped tulip vases. These were the largest show-vases. A well-known specimen is more than two metres high. They are composed of several storeys, and form a unique appearance of the Delft’s blue fayance. Finally, there are also tulip vases in all kinds of fantasy shapes.

The Decoration:

As the blue Delft-ware had to replace the Chinese porcelain, many of the paintings are Chinese imitations, or inspired on Chinese presentations.
Popular were Chinese landscapes depicting Chinese dignitaries. Also Dutch presentations were represented in Chinese style.

That does not alter the fact that also other styles of painting were applied. Well-known are Biblical presentations, allegorical presentations (the senses or the four seasons), landscapes, port-views and interiors. Flowers and plants were also frequently represented. On appointment, coats of arms and portraits were also applied as decoration. Initially, only hot (more than 900 degrees Celsius) earthenware-ovens were used.
The decoration was applied onto the dried up tin-glazing and fired together with the tin-glazing. Owing to this method of working , the colour integrated into the tin-glazing, and a smooth surface arose. Blue was the most popular colour, but also yellow, brown, black and brown-red could be applied.
When, at the end of the 17th century, the enamel-oven was invented, by means of which one could fire at 600 degrees, it became possible to also use bright-red and gold. These colours, however, were applied on top of the tin-glaze already fired, and consequently lie on the glazing. Often, a mixture of both techniques was used. Some colours were fired together with the tin-glazing, after which later on, with the aid of the enamel-oven once more, other, less heat-resistant colours were added. This specific technique was applied to enable the imitation of the Japanese Imari décor that had also become popular.