Into the Blue: A History of Delft Tilemaking

In the decorative arts world, few crafts possess the history or cultural significance of Delft tile making. Originating as far back as the 16th century, these blue and white hand painted ceramic tiles have changed little and remain an inspiration for tile makers, artists, interior designers and Pinterest-ers around the world.

Origins and Influences

Delft tile making can be traced back to the Dutch city of Delft in the early 16th century when the Dutch East India Company’s trade routes began importing small shipments of this opulent blue-and-white porcelain from China. The first large scale shipment actually came into Dutch hands through piracy, as in 1602 they seized a Portuguese trading vessel laden with Chinese porcelain. The contents were sold at auction to buyers across Europe and the industry was born. Importing at scale was prohibitively expensive and only for the very rich, so artisans in the Netherlands began experimenting to create their own versions for the middle classes. Delft was originally made of earthenware, which isn’t as fine as porcelain, but perfect for northern Europe’s dark and sooty fire places. 

Pair of antique Chinese blue and white porcelain vases

Golden Age and Artistic Evolution

The Dutch Golden Age - a high point of Dutch artistry, trade, global expansion and scientific development - spanned the 17th century and included the flourishing Classic blue and white delft tile with a shepherd and sheep

Delft tile making industry. As the style became more popular at home, artisans began diversifying designs away from typical Chinese motifs such as floral designs, birds or landscapes and looking to their own Dutch surrounding, historical events, and even biblical tales. Children playing, kitchen scenes and windmills all became staple imagery for the artists.

There was a complete evolution in style as craftsmen stopped trying to recreate Chinese ideas and began creating little blue and white vignettes for their own. 

At the same time Delftware's popularity surged across Europe – particularly with the aristocracy in France and Germany as it became a symbol of prestige and refinement. Its influence and style extended beyond tiles to encompass vases, figurines and especially tableware. Whole rooms were tiled with enormous blue and white murals that moved beyond little tile sized vignettes to become life sized works of art.

Technological Advancements and Decline

As the 18th century began, demand for Delftware was extraordinary and Dutch tile makers responded – creating an estimated 800 million individual tiles across the 17th and 18th centuries. Innovations in production techniques, such as the introduction of tile presses, enhanced efficiency and allowed for mass production whilst the Netherlands’ ever expanding trade network meant Delftware could be traded around the world. Some has even been found in China where it all began!

However as the 18th century wore on, the Dutch-based market faced stiff competition from English pottery manufacturers who learnt to create Delftware more quickly than their Dutch counterparts and used more modern factory techniques to produce cheaper ceramics on a huge scale.

As France, Great Britain and Spain – larger countries with larger populations – began to expand and take control of trading routes, Dutch trade was disrupted and the country’s economy began to struggle. By the beginning of the 19th century, many Dutch Delftware factories closed as the industry went elsewhere and, as with any fashion, tastes moved on. Delft simply stopped being desirable.

Revival and Enduring Legacy

Despite the decline of the traditional Delft tile industry, its legacy endured. In the 20th century, there was a resurgence of interest in antique Delftware, sparking a revival of the craft. Collectors sought to preserve those tiles that stood the test of time and artisans began to revive the techniques and designs that had fallen out of fashion for so long.

Today, Delft tiles are one of the most popular interior design choices for kitchens, bathrooms, fireplaces and anywhere that might be suitable for a tile! Contemporary Delft tile makers draw on both the classic motifs of the 17th and 18th centuries, along with ideas taken from everyday modern life – at Decorum we paint anything from the Cornish scenery around us to wellington boots! The key to a beautiful Delft tile is staying true to the blue and white colouring, and ensuring that the artistry is absolutely perfect. 

Modern Delft style tiles in white and blue with mackeral, wild camping, Cornish jellyfish and sea kayaking

Delft – Blue is always best

Our Delft ranges are some of our most longstanding and popular tile designs. Their endless versatility means we can keep our designs constantly up to date, whilst staying true to what “makes” Delft a Delft. We believe this has what kept the Delft tradition alive – despite fashion’s ups and downs. We love the fact that we can draw on so much heritage to create a deeply traditional range of designs such as our Flora Delft, whilst also working on our completely 21st century Wilderness range, which combines the classic styling of Delft with our love of the landscape around us today. Along with our own contemporary designs, there are other tile makers around the world who keep us inspired with their innovative approach to this centuries old technique. We have big plans for Delft this year and we can’t wait to see what other designs we’ll come across in 2024!

Artist looking at a shelf of modern Delft style blue and white painted tiles