Delft, in between Den Haag and Rotterdam, has a beguiling centre, a medley of ancient red-tiled houses set beside tree-lined canals interrupted by the cutest of bridges. With justification, it’s one of the most visited spots in the Netherlands, but most tourists come here for the day, and in the evening, even in the summer, the town can be surprisingly – and mercifully – quiet. Delft boasts a clutch of fascinating old buildings, one of them – the Prinsenhof – holding an enjoyable collection of Golden Age paintings. Nevertheless it’s the general flavour of the place that appeals rather than any specific sight. That said, the two big pulls as far as day-trippers are concerned are the Delftware factories, stuffed with the blue and white ceramics for which the town is famous, and Vermeer, the town’s best-known son.
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The origins of the clunky ceramics known as delftware can be traced to the Balearic island of Mallorca, where craftsmen had earlier developed majolica, a type of porous pottery that was glazed with bright metallic oxides. During the Renaissance, these techniques were exported to Italy from where they spread north, first to Antwerp and then to the United Provinces. Initially, delft pottery designs featured Dutch and Italian landscapes, portraits and biblical scenes, but the East India Company’s profitable import of Chinese ceramics transformed the industry. Delft factories freely copied Chinese designs and by the middle of the seventeenth century they were churning out blue-and-white tiles, plates, panels, jars and vases by the boatload – even exporting to China, where they undercut Chinese producers.
From the 1760s, however, the delft factories were themselves undercut by British and German workshops, and by the time Napoleon arrived they had all but closed down. There was a modest revival of the industry in the 1870s and there are several local producers today, but it’s mostly mass-produced stuff of little originality.