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The Manifold Charms of Delftware

May 15, 2023
by Matilda Moreton

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Today ceramicist Matilda Moreton reveals her passion for delftware

Delftware fragments from the Thames foreshore


The charms of delftware pottery are manifold. The silky smooth white surface, the rich cobalt and mushroom-purple manganese, warm ochre and brilliant green, the sweeping spontaneity of the brushwork – all this is instantly obvious to the eye. Yet behind these immediate charms lies an intriguing history that takes in waves of international trade, economic boom and bust, conflict, emigration, piracy and most importantly, an explosion that destroyed quarter of the city of Delft.

The term “delftware” is often used as a generic term to describe tin-glazed ceramics predominantly decorated with cobalt, much of which was in fact made in Antwerp or London before the business got going in Delft. The primary purpose of the tin glaze was to imitate the shiny white beauty of coveted Chinese porcelain, concealing a darker, cheaper clay.

Tin-glazed pottery originated in the Middle East over a thousand years ago. It was gradually spread by Moorish potters into Spain, then through Italy into Northern Europe. As it travelled, it mutated and was known by different names. In Italy it was known as “maiolica”, because it came through Majorca. Wares imported from Faenza into France and Germany were known respectively as “faience” and “fayence”. These terms are still in use today.

Subsequently, in England and the Netherlands, tin-glazed pottery became knows as “galleyware,” after the Venetian galleys that transported it. In 1513, maiolica or galleyware came from Italy to Antwerp with an Italian potter named Guido Andries and from there over to England, with his son or grandson, Jasper, who started up a pottery in Aldgate in 1570. Other Flemish potters soon came across the Channel to make “gallipots” too and what became known as ‘delftware’ potteries multiplied and flourished along the Thames. Archaeologists have found evidence of twenty-nine sites of delftware manufacture in London.

During the first half of the seventeenth century, the Dutch East India Company imported porcelain from China in vast quantities. After the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644, there was a sudden break in the supply, leading to a huge increase in demand for delftware with Chinese designs. The Dutch potters used an extra coating of clear glaze over the decorated tin glaze, creating a close imitation of porcelain’s high-fired glassy surface.

In 1654 – a pivotal moment in our story – an accidental explosion of dynamite in a warehouse destroyed a quarter of the city of Delft and killed many of its citizens. The city lost many of its breweries in the blast and those remaining suffered a fall in demand as working-class tastes switched from beer to gin. Vacant breweries provided the ideal new premises for potteries. Flemish potters, who had sought refuge in Holland from the Spanish Wars, now flocked to Delft to set up shop and soon a quarter of the city’s labour force was involved in the ceramics trade. More than forty potteries were operating in Delft, exporting their wares all over Europe.

The Delft potteries were particularly well-known for their tiles – functional art, perfect for protecting kitchen walls, preventing Dutch canal water from seeping in, and shielding the rear of fireplaces from soot. Huge quantities were exported, mainly to France, Germany, and Britain. Samuel Pepys had a number of his fireplaces “done with Dutch tiles” in 1662, later a popular decorating decision in well-to-do in Georgian England. Elsewhere in Europe, tile panels were commissioned for palaces and large houses, entire rooms were lined with them. An estimated eight hundred million tiles were made over two hundred years.

Alongside tiles, Delft potters manufactured luxurious “tulipières”, status symbols for the seventeenth century super-rich in a tulip-mad era. These were tall pyramidal display vases, made with spouts to display not just the stems but also the extortionately expensive bulbs of tulips, crocus and hyacinths. The skill of Delft potters has reached its height.

As Delft pottery became more and more popular, a particular version of delftware developed in England, more informal than the Dutch and somewhat naive in style. Expressive portraits were painted on “blue dash chargers”, for display on a wall or shelf, depicting Kings and Queens, Adam and Eve, and of course tulips. The imagery here is spontaneous and playful and the royal portraits have a quizzical look, with one eye higher than the other, under a raised eyebrow. This sums up the essential wry character of English Delft.

While the Dutchness of the Dutch was reflected in tiles and tulipières, the Englishness of English delftware – and the affluence of the Georgians – can be seen in these blue dash chargers, and in the pot-bellied wine bottles, mugs, goblets, posset bowls and porringers.

By the late eighteenth century, the price of porcelain had dropped and English creamware, which was stronger and cheaper than tin-glazed wares, developed in the Staffordshire potteries. Moreover, decoration could now be applied with the use of printed transfers. The beginning of the nineteenth century saw the virtual disappearance of the delftware industry, except for tourist souvenirs and in the form of art pottery, in both England and Holland.

Above all, Delftware is appealing for the exciting qualities that spring from the requirements of its technique of production. In order to paint onto an absorbent, unfired glaze with a watery solution of oxide, the brush work must be fast and fluent. If the brush hesitates and moves too slowly, the powdery glazed surface sucks up the liquid like blotting paper and the brush stroke is interrupted. Once the glaze has absorbed the oxide, mistakes cannot be corrected. To succeed, painting must be carried out with a dash and this requisite spontaneity is what makes delftware so special.

Tin-glazed earthenware is popular today among potters who love to draw and paint. Some of them use traditional motifs and styles while others employ a modern twist. An artist who did both was Simon Pettet, whose twentieth century delftware, complete with tiles, tulipières and much more, is on show at Dennis Severs’ House until June 4th.


Join one of Matilda Moreton’s half-day workshops next weekend, Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st May, and learn how to paint your own botanical design on a tin-glazed plate or tile at Townhouse, Spitalfields. Click here to book your place


Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, showing delft tiles along the foot of the wall

>William III, London, 1689-1705 (courtesy of V&A)

Queen Mary, Bristol, 1685-89 (courtesy of V&A)

The Temptation, Brislington, c. 1690-1700

Delft tiles in the kitchen at Dennis Severs House

Tulipière by Simon Pettet (photograph by Lucinda Douglas Menzies)

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy permalink
    May 15, 2023

    Some lovely pictures to begin a day.
    Thank you Gentle Author.


  2. May 15, 2023

    Thank you Matilda and the GA for this enlightening piece. I really need to book the exhibition at Dennis Sever’s house to see Simon’s work. This is the perfect reminder.

  3. May 15, 2023

    Oh yes I love Delft Wares. Thank you for these wonderful photo’s of them.

  4. May 15, 2023

    Fascinating, I wonder if the author has written about Delft ware. I shall investigate.

  5. Iain Palôt permalink
    May 15, 2023

    I love how words develop, faience for example. Went to Delft where you can buy the “blue”pottery made for the tourist or the real stuff with the particular mark on the bottom to show it is genuine Delft! Two pieces left in the will.

  6. Nichola Snudden permalink
    May 15, 2023

    What an incredible coincidence; I’m just back from 4 days in Amsterdam and noticed these tulipières but didn’t know what they were for. Thank you for such an interesting and apposite, well for me, article.

  7. Cherub permalink
    May 16, 2023

    When I was at high school in the 70s, my school took over an old Victorian Gothic house next door which was renovated to make extra classrooms. The entrance hall had a massive old fireplace with Delft tiles, sadly the council education department had workmen smash all the tiles off. I remember them being depictions of sailing ships, perhaps because of it being a coastal town?

    I used to live very close to the site of the pottery that made Wemyssware, every time we dug the vegetable garden we’d find small pieces of broken pottery. They were so pretty I used to put them along the kitchen windowsill. The local beaches often have pretty pieces of smooth coloured glass from an old bottle factory.

  8. Sarah Johnson permalink
    May 16, 2023

    My grandparents had Delft tiles in their bathroom in the 1950’s. Your pictures took me back there.

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