The Evolution of Dutch Delft Tiles

By Chloe Baker

Dutch Delft tiles are a unique example of colonial Dutch art that was both decorative and practical in purpose. The tiles themselves were produced by rolling clay into slabs, firing the slabs, then applying a thick glaze.1 A defining factor separating the Delft tiles from others is that the Dutch style included artistic representations of figures painted on the tiles. The scenes characteristic of these tiles depict images of animals, mythological creatures, and artifacts that were likely to have appeared in ordinary Dutch villages, such as windmills, houses or boats. The tiles often portrayed different characters such as men, women, children, and even fishermen. Most of the tiles are colored blue to imitate the style of Chinese porcelain, which had become popular as a result of Dutch trade with China.2 The tiles were popular household items, and were often used in houses by chimneys, or less frequently displayed on walls, corridors, staircases, and kitchens. The painters who decorated the tiles were not typically famous artists, but apprentices who relied on the teachings of their masters.

delfttiles1

delfttiles2

delfttiles3

delfttiles4

The paintings depicted on the tiles are rudimentary compared to modern day designs, yet elegant in their simplicity. The humble yet definitive line strokes is reminiscent of a simpler era, one of villages and towns, fishermen, little children playing games, and swans elegantly sitting atop still water. The designs found on Dutch tiles were the result of a honed artistic process, the first step of which involved forming the tiles out of clay, after which a pin would be used to sketch a pattern on the tile—a process referred to by the Dutch as spons. The patterns on the tiles were then covered with charcoal, which was eventually painted onto the tile in a process known as “treck.” The final step involved shading for an end result of a plain yet sophisticated set of tiles. Despite the definitive artistic process involved in the creation of Delft tiles, the tiles did not evolve into a luxury item, and  instead remained accessible to most of the middle class population in colonial Dutch society.3

As Dutch Delftware increased in popularity, the English began to incorporate the Dutch painting style into their tiles as well. As demand grew, the production of Delft tiles ceased to take the form of a specialized enterprise between master and apprentice, but instead was manufactured in factories, the most famous of which were based in Bristol and Liverpool. Eventually the Dutch followed suit and began to produce their own tiles in factories.4 The tiles became so greatly popular that after an embargo was levied against the importation of goods into Britain, the Delft tiles were still distributed in and out of the country.  In the colonies, there are references to Dutch tiles in Boston before the Revolutionary War, advertising: “All sorts of Dutch Tyle viz, Scripture, (round and square), Lankskips of divers sorts.”5 Although within a period of twenty years, the same paper printed an advertisement for: “English Chimney Tiles.” In 1762, it was reported that the tiles contained “red & white, and blue & white English Chimney Tiles.”6 This demonstrates the evolution of Dutch Tile production from small scale and individual enterprise to one of mass production. In the colonies, Delft tiles became an expensive item as authentic copies could only be imported from Britain.7 The tiles were usually utilized in the colonies for more decorative rather than practical purposes, covering fireplace openings and adopting the name “chimney tiles.”8 Historic Huguenot Street holds a number of these tiles in our permanent collection. These particular tiles are part of a larger set of 17 from the estate of Miss Phyllis DuBois. They date to between 1650 and 1750.

1 van Lemmen, Hans. Delftware Tiles. Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd, 2010. 6. Print.

2 Honey, W. B. “Dutch Pottery and Glass.” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs. Vol. 81, No. 477. London: Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd., Dec. 1942. 295. Print.

3 van Lemmen. 8.

4 Beaman, Thomas, Jr. “‘Some Fragments Of Blue Dutch Tiling’ at Brunswick Town: Decorative Delftware Tiles from Russellborough, Prospect Hall, and The Public House.” North Carolina Archaeology 26 (1997). 295.

5 Hume, Ivor Noël. A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc., 2001. 287. Print.

6 Ibid.

7 Beaman. 295.

8 Ibid.

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