By Betty Gordon
© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.
Perhaps the most famous of Rembrandt’s artworks is the 1642 masterpiece “The Night Watch,” which claims pride of place in Amsterdam’s vast Rijksmuseum. Measuring about 13 by 16 feet, it takes up nearly a full wall and is the largest oil painting he ever completed.
Its official name is “Militia Company of District II Under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq,” and it depicts the members of a civic guard, Amsterdam’s militia and police. In all, 19 guardsmen are accompanied by 16 other figures, giving a range of motion and emotion to the setting.
The captain, clad mostly in black except for a white ruffed collar and a red sash extending from his right shoulder diagonally across his body, dominates the center of the painting. With his outstretch left arm, a slash of light illuminating his white cuff, he’s making a point to the militia member to his left (the viewer’s right), Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch, who, dressed mostly in white garments, is a striking contrast to the captain.
Now imagine “The Night Watch” rendered in another medium, posing maybe even a bigger challenge than what Rembrandt (1606-1669) undertook. He had a range of colors to choose from on his palette, and his genius is evident in his use of shadow and light.
What I’m referring to is this work almost exclusively illustrated in shades of blue and white, and painted on ceramic tiles. It took two Royal Delft master artists more than a year (1999-2000) to faithfully copy Rembrandt’s original, the most difficult piece the famed porcelain company has undertaken to date.
The tile “Night Watch” was executed to coincide with an exhibition at the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague (about 20 minutes by tram from Delft). The 480 tiles, each more than 7 inches square (18 cm), are not cemented on a wall at the Royal Delft museum, but securely attached to listels on a wooden frame so that “The Night Watch” can travel. It is nearly equal in size to the painting.
This tribute to the Dutch master can be seen, along with hundreds of other more delicate examples of fine porcelain plates and vases and other shapes at the factory and showroom in the city of Delft, an easy train trip of less than an hour from Amsterdam. And better yet, you can also take a workshop to make your own Delft tile.
I had long wanted to visit Delft, not just because of an interest in pottery and ceramics but also because it was where Johannes (aka Jan) Vermeer (1632-1675) lived and painted his sublime portraits of everyday life during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century.
One of Vermeer’s works, “The Little Street” (circa 1658), also gets the tile treatment at Royal Delft. The house on the right in his painting shows the dwelling at the address Vlamingstraat 40-42, in which an aunt of Vermeer lived with her children in Delft.
Porcelain was first brought to the Netherlands from China in the early 17th century, by ships of the Dutch East India Company, which were importing spices and other goods. Affluent Dutch families and European royals enthusiastically purchased the distinctive blue-and-white ceramics and the imported dishes adorned many a banquet table.
When warfare in China severely curtailed availability but demand remained strong, Dutch potteries sprang up in Delft to fill the void. At one point, about 32 potteries were turning out their version of the original glazed earthenware product.
By the 1800s, English potteries, particularly Wedgwood, and competition from European makers fabricating less expensive products were drawing business away from Delft. Dutch companies also were falling behind in innovation, leading to an overall downturn in the industry around Delft.
With this combination of conditions, by 1840, only Royal Delft, founded in 1653 (as De Porceleyne Fles, which translates as the Porcelain Jar, the shape of which figures in the company’s trademark) was the sole original house still in business. While Delft Blue might be the most recognizable, over the next centuries, other glazes joined the collection (and were later retired).
Among the more unusual was a process called “Black Delft,” inspired by Chinese lacquerware, where red, blue and yellow designs stood out against a black background. This earthenware was introduced in 1978 to mark Royal Delft’s 325th anniversary.
I was in Delft in October 2013, after the crush of tourists had left for the season. Delft feels like a calmer, more compact Amsterdam. You can walk along the canals and admire the narrow canal houses’ decorative gables and cornices, just like in Amsterdam. Delft’s 17th-century wealth came from 200 breweries (80 percent of output was exported) and textiles.
Not far from the main square are well-tended low-rise residences, fronted by white-lace window curtains featuring dainty designs of birds, animals and flowers. Potted plants lend color to the scene and climbing vines snake up the brick facades. Just like Amsterdam — and much of the Netherlands — bicycles are everywhere.
From my bed-and-breakfast, it was about a 15- to 20-minute walk to the Royal Delft factory (Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles in Dutch). This route was lined with trees in full autumnal colors and substantial two-story brick houses, again well-looked after, but clearly a step up in price and square footage.
I checked in to confirm my workshop appointment, then spent my free time waiting for my class walking around the museum’s wide-ranging collection and factory floor. I didn’t have a guide but was allowed unhindered access among the artists painting tall, cylindrical vases, asking questions and taking photographs. (The self-guided tour said painters train for five years and one of the brief films said 10 years, so even with the discrepancy, it’s still a lengthy process.)
The factory floor was quiet except for one man clad all in white was stacking the kiln for firing. Shelves, counters and cases were lined with myriad sizes and shapes of molds, and vases, plates and tiles in various states of completion.
My workshop had just two other people, a mother and daughter from Israel. They both choose to paint plates, while I made a tile. At our work stations, we had two paintbrushes — one with a few long bristles to use in outlining and the other with shorter, stouter bristles for filling in — water, a black paint containing cobalt oxide and a fractured piece of pottery. We used these as our test swatches, to practice how much paint we needed, adding water to dilute the coloring, and to get used to the brushes.
We had a choice of drawing our own designs or selecting from the workshop’s collection. I did the latter, settling on a tulip — an appropriate representation considering the Netherlands’ long association and revenue-producing history with the flower.
Our instructor lightly traced the outline making charcoal dots on my tile, which measured about 5 by 5 inches square. Then it was up to me to decide how thick the lines would be, which parts I would fill in completely and which I would leave white.
It took more than an hour to complete. My tile’s black-and-white appearance would be transformed to the well-known Delft Blue by a chemical process when it was fired.
Many weeks later, my tile arrived in the mail. It was well-wrapped in a small parcel and the tile was in one piece. A special souvenir from a lovely few days in Delft.
There are enough attractions and small museums to explore, all within easy walking distance, that visitors should consider Delft as a base for two or three days, especially if you’re interested in an easy side trip to The Hague.
Don’t miss the Vermeer Center, which has copies of all 37 paintings the artist did, though there is some disagreement on several that are attributed to him. Nowhere in Delft is there an original Vermeer. You’ll have to visit the Mauritshuis, home of “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” or the Rijskmuseum for that. The Vermeer Center also explores his painting techniques and has a replica of his studio.
On the market square, drop into the New Church (Nieuwe Kerk) to visit the ornate mausoleum of William I (1533-1584), founder of the House of Orange, and other royalty. Then cross over to check out the imposing Town Hall opposite the church.
A short stroll from the square is the Old Church (Oude Kerk), final resting place of Vermeer, and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), inventor of the microscope and discovered of bacteria.
Also worth a visit is the historical museum, Stedelijk Museum Het Prinsenhof, site of a former convent. It was in this building that the Protestant William I was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic. The bullet holes remain evident on the staircase wall where the shooting happened in 1584. Also of interest is the antique Delftware collection, silverware and tapestries.
Places to buy souvenirs (Delftware isn’t cheap) abound, as do cheese shops. You’ll also come across the odd windmill, and many opportunities to buy tulip bulbs. The price isn’t a bargain, but if you do buy, make sure there is an official-looking agricultural sticker that says the bulbs are cleared to be brought into the United States. Otherwise, they’re likely to be taken away at U.S. Customs.
Quick reference: Royal Delft: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Workshops are conducted at 2:30 p.m. daily. Minimum of two people. Reservations are necessary and can be made online or by phone. Price depends on what shape you choose to make and if you are also taking the factory tour. Because the tile must be fired, you won’t be able to take it with you. Royal Delft will deliver it to your hotel or ship it to your home, at an extra fee for postage and packaging. In country, deliver will be in about 10 working days. Shipping abroad will take several weeks. You can special order a tile, vase or plate that an artist will complete (order can be placed online). The showroom has a wide selection, an an equally wide price range. Make sure to check the sale area where the discontinued designs may have a lower price. www.royaldelft.com; +31 (0) 15 760 08 00.
I stayed at the Hotel Leeuwenbrug, a converted warehouse not far from the train station. My room was at the back of the hotel and I could see the spire of the New Church from my window. The rooms in front overlook the canal. http://www.leeuwenbrug.nl