Delftware is a now ubiquitous and somewhat unsympathetic term for earthenware antique pottery items, finished with a tin-glaze in order to provide a white, opaque ceramic glaze on to which decoration can then be applied. Generally thought of as being exclusively Dutch in origin, and decorated solely in monochrome blue, there’s actually rather more to Delftware than this somewhat limited perception.

Given the sort of geographical specificity much loved by EU bureaucrats in recent history however, the name should never really have been applied to the material in the first place, as the first examples hailed from Antwerp, in 16th century Belgium, and were mostly manufactured by Italian emigres schooled in the production of majolica. When the trade first moved northwards – in the face of marauding Spaniards who sacked the Belgian production centre – it was primarily re-established in Middleburg and Haarlem (the Netherlands), then Amsterdam. Having attracted its own complement of the now somewhat itinerant production workers, the city of Delft itself did manage to earn a reputation for the high quality of the wares produced there, but there was never any sense that it was a product which could be said to only – properly – come from within the city limits.

Even the high regard in which Delft’s own products were held was somewhat flawed, as it was based on the use of a particularly high-quality clay base – which was an amalgam of three different types. One was locally sourced right enough, but one came from Tournai in Belgium and the other from the broad and rather non-specific region known as ‘the Rhineland’, which was smeared indiscriminately over maps of the course of the lower reaches of the great river. As has been demonstrated, Delftware was no more made exclusively in Delft as does Yorkshire pudding hail only from God’s Own County…

Having proved enduringly popular for around a century and a half, it was almost inevitable that the style would percolate over the North Sea to the UK – following long-established trade routes which acted as much as a conduit for ideas as they were for commodities. Production centres sprang up in
Liverpool, London (around Lambeth) and – eventually – in The Potteries themselves. Our own craftsmen changed the original Dutch formula very little for the most part, and decoratively sticking with the same blue, monochrome approach. There was however a noticeably higher number of differing oriental designs, over and above the original ‘Long Eliza’ style, which took its anglicised name from a Dutch original. There was also an albeit short-lived burst of enthusiasm for the use of more colourful enamel decorations on Liverpudlian ‘Delftware’ during the 1760’s, which became known as Fazackerley-ware; the use of the same rather limited polychrome palette of colours also flourished – even more briefly – in Bristol.

Wherever it was made, Delftware tended to be used for utilitarian domestic wares and – especially in the Netherlands – decorative tiles, an ‘interior design’ feature which remains in many period Dutch homes to this day. Ultimately, this rather home-spun reputation was to spell the end of large-scale production, as first cream and pearl-wares, then affordable bone china and porcelain came to the fore and displaced earthenware, however finely-finished it might have been, in the affections of the buying public.

It does, however, retain an undeniable charm, residual from its former place as the ‘tableware of the masses’, something of a kick-back against the upstart pretensions of exquisite china with its flawless complexion, arrayed on the dining tables of upwardly-mobile merchants and the nascent upper classes – who were all about affectation rather than affection…