You know that tea set your grandmother has? The porcelain white one decorated with images painted in blue- probably windmills? The one she won’t let you touch because God-forbid you might break something? Yeah that one. That’s probably because it’s precious Royal Delft Blue pottery. Delft Blue pottery has been manufactured in Delft since the later 1600’s and it is still a recognizable name today. Surprisingly, a novel set in the 1600’s prompted my visit to the Delft Royal Blue Factory where I discovered the secret to the longevity of Delft Blue’s popularity in another literary work- one involving a little white bunny!
I was visiting Delft because it is the hometown of my favorite painter, Johannes Vermeer. I spent a good portion of the morning exploring The Vermeer Centrum, learning about his life and works and now it was time to add a little more context by exploring one of the foremost industries that was simultaneously in production. Delft Blue pottery was not only in production during the painter’s life time, but the images Vermeer and his contemporary guildsmen painted appeared rendered in Blue on the tiles and dishware!
I decided to walk the 15-20 minutes from the heart of the old city to the Royal Delft Blue Factory. I was close to the end of The Girl with the Pearl Earring audiobook so I listened as I walked, gazing around me at the very sights the book described. The book starts with the young woman, Greit, leaving home to work as a maid in Vermeer’s household. As she says goodbye to her papa she explains,
“Father had been a tile painter, his fingers stained blue from painting cupids, maids, soldiers, ships, children, fish, flowers, animals onto white tiles, glazing them, firing them, selling them.”
I strolled along a canal, walking on brick roads, and hopped quickly to squeeze against buildings each time a car or bike zoomed by on streets never meant for such contraptions. As I reached the edge of the old city the bricks turned into pavement, roads widened, and the bridges over canals were no longer footpaths, but drawbridges that raised to allow larger boat traffic. I walked along a modern tree lined residential neighborhood and came out at last near the Delft University campus. Delft is actually a college town and I saw several students rushing on foot and bicycle towards the large buildings as I ducked into a smaller one just across the street, the Royal Delft Blue Factory.
First, I forgot to use the discount voucher for my entrance ticket that I had so proudly procured at the Delft Information Center that morning! Then, with my audio guide at the ready, I headed into… what looked like an indoor brick-floor courtyard with a second story balcony. Several doorways opened off the ground floor and lined the walls of the second floor. Men dressed in overalls with white splotches and hands covered in clay came from doorways and disappeared through others. Not sure where to go I peered into what seemed to be a lunch room. Clearly this was first and foremost a factory. Eventually I found the right door and proceeded into the display rooms.
The Royal Delft Blue Pottery Paintings
To represent pottery decorated in the 1600’s, at the beginning of Delft Blue’s popularity, a recreation of a dining room featured dishware with reproductions of Vermeer’s paintings! The Girl with the Pearl Earring and other images were visible on the sides of vases and plate faces. Corresponding prints hung on the walls.
The Delft Blue dishes were so well liked by the Dutch Royal Family that they began to commission commemorative sets for big events such as marriages and holidays. They even bestowed the title of “Royal” on the Delft Blue company. To this day the company designs an annual Christmas commemorative plate and porcelain bell. There were several rooms of these commemorative dishes sets.
Besides dishware, tiles were popular as pieces of art, for those that could afford them. From my audiobook I had learned that Greit’s family, even though her father painted tiles, could not afford to keep any besides the ones that had become skewed in the firing process. When her father gave her a perfect tile as a parting gift, it became her one prized possession.
“My father handed me something wrapped in a handkerchief. “To remind you of home,” he said. “Of us.” It was my favorite tile of his”
With this in mind, I moved into a room where a rendition of Rembrandt’s The Night Watchman was on display. It was made up of several tiles, and I believe it was either the actual size of the original painting…or a little bigger! It was taller than me at any rate!
After several show rooms of dishes and tiles, the tour led into the warehouse. Not much was going on, but there were stacks of white unglazed pottery waiting to be painted.
Ready for a surprising fact? Remember I told you Greit said,
“Father had been a tile painter, his fingers stained blue from painting”
This quote is inaccurate. His hands would not have been stained blue at all, but black. The paint is black and turns blue during the firing process! To prove it, a tile painter had been set up in one of the last rooms and sure enough he was painting a multi-tile masterpiece in BLACK!
Contemporary Royal Delft Blue
This room also contained display cases with some of the latest Delft Blue designs, and it was here that the little white bunny, Miffy caught my eye for the umptienth time while in Holland! Miffy is everywhere!
I also saw her depicted on the wooden shoes at Zaanse Schans.
And in crochet form at a shop in Amsterdam!
Miffy seems to be the Netherlands’ version of Hello Kitty. Miffy, the world-wide, well-known, children’s book character originated in the Netherlands. She is the creation of the author and illustrator, Dick Bruna.
Bruna, coincidentally passed away just last month on February 16, 2017. I always appreciate when artists are widely recognized during their lifetime. Therefore, I was happy that Delft Blue had chosen to feature the minimalist drawings of Bruna’s children’s books as their latest artist. It seems the Royal Delft Blue company stays current by featuring a local artist of the time.
Have you seen art from a book used on some other product?
Read along with me!
Purchase Miffy in the Netherlands & Girl with a Pearl Earring from Amazon here.
*These are affiliate links, which means I’ll make a few cents, which will be put towards this blog!
Plan Your Visit
Entrance Fee: €12.50 ($14.27), includes audio guide
Save $$: The Delft Tourism Info Center offers a €3 discount coupon for entrance (which I forgot to use!). The walk from the Info Center to the Delft Blue Factory is about 15-20 min, but public transport is also an option.
Address: Rotterdamseweg 196, Delft
Hours: March-October: Mon-Sun 9-17 hr., Nov-Mar: Mon-Sat 9-17 hr., Sun 12-17hr.
I love Delft. For years I have been collecting Delft plates. I will buy random blue and white plates. It’s a cheap and it’s fun to see all your favorite every time you serve a meal. See aronson.com/in-depth/the-blue-in-dutch-delftware for a great take on Delft.