It is no accident that Dutch Delftware pottery resembles late Ming Dynasty Chinese porcelain. The Dutch pottery industry began in the early 17th Century, after Dutch traders imported the floral-patterned porcelain from China.
In Delft, 32 factories were established, many of them in former breweries. (Delft's brewing industry died in the early 1600s, when the water from the town's canals became polluted.)
Dutch potters found it difficult at first to duplicate the fine Chinese porcelain. The Chinese used white clay, containing a high percentage of kaolin, to obtain a translucent quality. The Dutch potters were limited to their native gray-brown, somewhat sandy earthen material.
Windmills a Winner
But after several decades of experimentation, the Dutch potters discovered how to decorate their pieces with the extensive detail used by the Chinese. The technique required that pieces be dipped in a white underglaze before the pattern was painted on. The resulting Dutch pieces were thicker and less translucent than the Chinese porcelain. Their designs soon incorporated windmills and other Dutch motifs, and Delftware became popular in its own right.
The factories flourished until the mid-18th Century, when Meissen, Sevres and Berlin developed porcelain industries that challenged Delft's dominance of the market. Further competition came when Josiah Wedgwood and other English potters, using English white clay, developed timesaving techniques that didn't require pieces to be underglazed. Their porcelain was lighter in weight, less porous and more durable.
De Porceleyne Fles (the name means porcelain bottle), founded in 1653, is the only Delft pottery factory still in business. Joost Thooft saved it from bankruptcy in 1876 and he modified production to use imported English white clay. His method is still in use, and his initials are part of the De Porceleyne Fles logo.
Today the company employs 160 people, including 85 painters. De Porceleyne Fles runs a four-year apprenticeship program to develop skilled employees for the labor-intensive process.
Workshops are closed to visitors, but the public can watch demonstrations at the factory. Plates are thrown on potters' wheels. Vases, bowls, pitchers and other rounded pieces are pressed in plaster molds. The pieces are dried and sent for a first firing to produce bisque.
Painters outline the patterns by rubbing a pouch of charcoal over a stencil placed on the bisque. The barely visible matrix of dots (which burn off during the second firing) provide guidelines for freehand application of glaze.
Painters vary the pattern slightly in order to keep their touch fresh. They alternate work on vases, plates and other items for the same reason. At this point the cobalt-blue glaze looks dull, dark and gray. Thickly applied glaze produces a lustrous opaque blue; diluted glaze yields a more transparent hue.
Painting may take several hours or several days, depending upon the complexity of the design. When a piece is completed, the painter initials it and applies the De Porceleyne Fles logo. Each piece is then dipped in white glaze and fired again.
Variety of Patterns
De Porceleyne Fles is best known for its blue-and-white ware, but the factory also produces Pijnacker (a red, blue and gold pattern on a white background, similar to Japanese Imari porcelain), Black Delft (pottery made briefly during the late 15th Century and revived in 1978 in celebration of De Porceleyne Fles' 375th anniversary) and Polychrome (red, yellow, blue and green pattern on a white background). The same basic shapes are used with all patterns.
De Porceleyne Fles also makes commemorative plates, especially to mark royal birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and other events of national interest. The company's annual Christmas plates are famous.
The factory (196 Rotterdamsweg in Delft; phone 015-569-214) is open weekdays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sundays from 1 to 6 p.m. Demonstrations are held daily from March to October. The factory's museum has fabulous antique pieces, including the entire Delftware collection of William III, commemorative plates and bowls, vases, pitchers and plates in all the De Porceleyne Fles patterns.
The factory shop doesn't sell antique pieces, but it does have the world's best selection of Delftware. Prices for perfect pieces are comparable to those in other shops, but the factory sells seconds at 30% to 40% off list prices. Stock varies daily.
Here are some sample prices: Blue-and-white clocks cost $280 if perfect; with slight smudges the price drops to $200. A perfect tile costs $25; a second is $19. Pay $250 for a perfect Christmas plate, $185 for a second. A perfect Pijnacker 15-inch plate costs $435, a second $325. And a perfect Polychrome candlestick costs $115; seconds are $85.
Portrait on a Plate
You can order a portrait plate, painted from a photograph. It takes three or four days to make, and costs $1,000 to $1,500.