Sun, 10 Oct 1999

Everlasting handpainted Delft Blue ceramic

Famed for its architecture and art, the Netherlands now adds a variety of modern attractions to its age-old allure. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, which celebrated its 80th anniversary on Oct. 7, and the Netherlands Board of Tourism invited The Jakarta Post's journalist Stevie Emilia on a media tour from Sept. 19 to Sept. 26 to see the country's main attractions. Below are her report and photographs.

DELFT, Netherlands (JP): Delicate blue ceramics in various forms is a common thing here, available in places from small street shops to elegant stores.

Ceramics can also be seen neatly arranged in glass cabinets or displayed in living rooms, hotels, cafes, even at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, where it decorates walls with its painted blue designs.

This kind of ceramic is known as Delft Blue, a general term for earthenware decorated in blue on a white background.

According to Inge Groot Enzerink, sales and public relations coordinator of the Royal Dutch Delftware De Porceleyne Fles -- the only remaining factory of the 32 earthenware factories that were established in Delft in the 17th century -- not all of the Delft Blue ceramics are original. Some are even made as far away as Hong Kong and Taiwan.

But some people, especially tourists, do not care much about originality.

"I bought these Delft Blue as souvenirs for my friends, not for me," said Ursula, a German tourist.

When asked whether the products she had bought were original Delft Blue or not, she said: "Honestly, I don't really care. My friends wanted me to buy these blue ceramics for them, so I bought them."

She added that she was not interested in ceramics herself. "If I want to collect works of art, I prefer paintings. At least I wont be afraid they will break," she said.

But others crave for the real Delft Blue and pack most stores which claim to sell originals at high prices.

At Royal Delft, for instance, a tobacco jar is offered at 440 guilders (US$212.6), while a vase might reach 795 guilders ($384.2).

Enzerink said the factory received plenty orders for its special editions, like pieces for Christmas and the coming millennium when it will release three millennium plates designed by its master painters.

"Most people who order our special edition pieces are collectors," she said.

The factory's main line of products range from Delftware whose patterns originate in Chinese porcelain from the Ming and Kang Hsi dynasties, along with original Dutch land and seascapes, and Delft Black, a technique of applying blue, red and yellow on a black background.

Another product, Polychrome, stems from a multicolored technique that is considered to be the successor of Italian Majolica which was produced in the 16th and 17th centuries. It consists of yellow, green, blue and russet decorations. Yet another, Pijnacker, is based on a technique that owes its origin to Japanese Imari porcelain and is mainly decorated in red, blue and 24 carat gold.

Enzerink said the number of factories producing earthenware rapidly increased in the 16th century, especially after Dutch seamen caught several cargoes containing Chinese porcelain. The Dutch East India Company also contributed to the development of ceramics by bringing back large quantities of Chinese porcelain from the Far East.

And soon, this type of porcelain, which was decorated in blue on a white background, became popular among the Dutch. Local potters started to imitate them, but since porcelain was a material unknown in the Netherlands, they used local clay.

Enzerink said at the time, ceramics showed one's status in society and simply served for decorative purposes.

"Then, those who had ceramic collections were usually those of high status in society," she said, adding that the collection would be proudly displayed to guests.

When asked whether Delft Blue is simply a copy of Chinese porcelain, Enzerink said confidently: "It might be true of the early period, but now, with the development of our techniques and patterns, they might be the ones who copy us."

The production process of Delft earthenware starts with the composition of the clay. It is made up of about 10 raw materials, of which kaolin, chalk, feldspars and quarts are most essential. The raw materials are carefully mixed with water and become a liquid mass.

"But due to the limited materials found here in the Netherlands, we still have to import some, including clay, from England, the Czech Republic and France," Enzerink said.

The liquid clay is then poured into plaster molds, which absorbs the water, leaving a layer of hard clay on its interior walls. After some time, the clay, or body, is hard enough and is taken out of the mailed.

After the body has been left to dry, a layer of liquid clay is applied to obtain the best painting results before the product is fired for the first time at a temperature of 1,160 degrees Celsius. The body, which is now called a biscuit, is ready to be decorated.

Delftware painters start to decorate by painting the outlines of a design. After this has been done, they carefully apply the details with special brushes made from the hairs of martens and squirrels. The paint is waterbased, enabling the painters to create various shades of blue by adding more water.

Delft Blue, for instance, is painted with a mixture which mainly consists of cobalt oxide. Chemical reactions during the second firing will turn the black paint to blue.

To create Pijnacker, the colors are painted on in different stages. First, the blue paint is applied, then the product is glazed and fired at 1,200 degrees Celsius. The temperature is too high for the red and gold, so the two colors have to be painted afterward and then fired at the lower temperature of 800 degrees Celsius.


As of June 1st, the Royal Delft factory started the full-sized production of Dutch painter Rembrandt's masterpiece, The Nightwatch, on Delftware tiles, inspired by the coming millennium and the ongoing Rembrandt by Himself exhibition at the Mauritshuis.

Two of the factory's master painters, Jos L.P.M. van de Giessen and Nico de Graaf, are both graduates of the Academy of Arts and have been working at the factory for more than 35 years. They are currently working on the Delft Blue painting.

"The Delftware version of The Nightwatch is expected to be completed in October of next year," Enzerink said.

Although it's not yet completed, Delftware's Nightwatch was sold to an anonymous buyer who bought it in September at an undisclosed price. The price of this unique piece of art was earlier estimated at half a million guilders ($241,662.6).

Master painter de Graaf explained that in total, 480 tiles measuring 18 by 18 cms were used for the painting. But during the first stage, Delftware's Nightwatch would be larger than the original painting.

"After the shrinking in the kiln, the painting will be the same size as the original," de Graaf said.

Traditionally, Royal Delft is known for reproducing tile paintings and pictures. However, in the almost 350 years of its history, not once has such a large piece been made.