A warm July afternoon I went through the ‘Royal Delft Experience’ in the town of Delft with Helen Taylor the tourism coordinator who narrated the incredible story as we walked through the 362 year old Delft factory, which continues to produce the authentic masterpieces. The name Delft is borrowed from the quaint town of Delft whose other 2 icons are the famous artist Johannes Vermeer and The Dutch Royal family. Over centuries, members of the royal family stayed, married and were buried in Delft
Once you enter Holland it’s difficult to miss the Delft Blue style, whether on a Chinese made key chain at one of the souvenir shops, a dinner bell, or a magnificent piece of hand painted earthenware with a price tag to keep the tourists at bay. Delft Blue Pottery is as iconic to Holland as are the cheese and clogs. But I wonder why the Delft museum which also is the factory, is so low on a visitors itinerary, I suppose it has a lot to do with marketing gimmicks which center around windmills, the red light district, soft drugs and canal tours. Moreover isn’t the Royalty beyond the ambit of advertising gimmicks. After all it’s Royal Delft.
Delft is also known as the Princes’ city. Every Royal event is marked by creating an unique commemoration plate at Royal Delft. The first plate numbered ‘0’ is for the Delft factory, the second number ‘1’ is sent to the Royal family and number ‘2’ onwards it’s sold to public collectors.
Strolling through, the historic factory we walked into the master painter’s room, it takes 10 years of apprenticeship to qualify as a master painter. Presently Royal Delft has 7 master painters and 3 apprentices. Totally mesmerized by the array of exquisite pieces of earthenware all around I was surprised 7 masters could oversee this creativity. Helen assured, amused at my surprise; ‘They can manage the job between themselves’. Every design created by the masters is archived; they have the stencils dating back to 17th century. Leon Senf, one of the most renowned artists in the history of Royal Delft, started the use of bright colours alongside the signature cobalt blue. In the mid 90’s the innovative design line was started depicting modern art styles. The porcelain has tried to keep up with the changing times.
The Blue and White porcelain has its origins in China, it is The Dutch East India Company who first imported the pottery and introduced it to the Dutch high society, soon after it became a prized possession & status symbol for the rich and famous. As the years went by and Dutch craftsmen took up the art, Dutch designs dominated over the Chinese style.
Today Delftware is produced by two distinct techniques. One is hand painted, which requires the master painter to painstakingly draw and then fill in the colours by hand. The other is via design transfer with a stencil. At times it’s difficult for the untrained eye to identify, one from the other, as both result in the same stunning look. The difference is in the time and expertise it takes to produce and therefore the price. For the same design a hand painted piece will cost around Euro 200 while a similar one through stencil transfer costs Euro 50. The hand painted versions, carry a stamp with the artist’s initials, year code and has Delft scrawled at the back, whereas the stencil transfer, mention the words ‘Royal Delft’. Be sure to check, next time you purchase a Royal Delft piece.
Many master pieces of the Dutch masters have been reproduced in the Delft style. One of the most famous is Nightwatch by Rembrandt. The Royal Delft version consists of 480 tiles put together, 2 artists started work simultaneously from the left and right end of the frame, and finally they met at the center thus completing the grand piece. After completion the artists claimed theirs was a much more difficult job as they had only one colour, black, to bring out the jaw dropping impact of The Nightwatch whereas Rembrandt could use all the colours he wished. Delft Blue is painted with just one colour – black. Mixing the black paint with water creates the different shades and when a lot of water is added a shade which is almost white appears. During firing the black paint turns blue due to formation of cobalt oxide. The Delft Nightwatch, apparently was bought by an anonymous buyer, for an undisclosed price and then given to the museum on loan to display to the public.
The old adage, history repeats itself, coming true once again as the Blue earthenware which started it is journey from China and made its way into the Dutch society is now once again going back to China, recreating the cheap machine made Delftware and being sold in every nook and corner for the tourists to take back home in memory of Holland.
It’s difficult to stop the influx of these cheap copies, but then I wonder if it was only the Royal version could one have acquired one so easily. For the ones who appreciate art I would like to suggest avoid the Chinese versions, go for the stencil transfer, at least you have a piece painstakingly created under the eyes of the master in the 362yr old factory.
When in Holland don’t miss The Royal Delft Experience. Check out;
Written byShayonti Chatterji