An exotic world, so far away that it took almost a year by ship to reach it.
The Dutch East India Company (VOC) imported literally tens of millions of pieces of porcelain during the two centuries of its existence (1602-1799) and flooded the Netherlands with all kinds of tablewares made in China or Japan. The qualities were obvious: porcelain was thin, light and nevertheless very strong, easy to clean, available in many varieties and shapes and, at least in the seventeenth century, it imparted status to its owner. In the 1640s when porcelain became scarce due to political upheavals in China, Delftware became a real alternative. Potters managed to make a thinner type of faïence, which they had often decorated with well-painted Oriental designs.
The Dutch in the seventeenth and eighteenth century had different options for the wares that they used at the table. Simplest were the round, flat wooden trays and the beakers of horn that still emerge in archaeological excavations in Dutch city centers. Widely used was utilitarian earthenware, produced locally and low-fired with a red or yellow body covered with a transparent lead glaze. Of better quality was Dutch maiolica, with a white tin glaze on the front and a lead glaze on the reverse, decorated in blue or a few colors. Sturdier was Rhenish stoneware, mostly jugs and ewers, either decorated or plain. More prestigious was pewter with its silvery shine. Faïence from Delft or Friesland, covered on both sides with a white tin glaze and beautifully painted with blue or colored decoration was more of a luxury alternative for maiolica. Later in the eighteenth century, hard-fired earthenware imported from Staffordshire in England offered competition. Glass was, of course, used for drinking vessels and an occasional ewer or tazza.
The Dutch East India Company (VOC) imported literally tens of millions of pieces of porcelain during the two centuries of its existence (1602-1799) and flooded the country with all kinds of tablewares made in China or Japan. The decoration of Chinese and Japanese porcelains gave a glimpse of a strange and exotic world, so far away that it took almost a year by ship to reach it. There, dragons, phoenixes and fierce lions dwelt among large flowering plants and in mountainous landscapes. Tall, slender ladies strolled in fenced gardens, accompanied by small dancing boys. Scholars meditated in the wilderness, and warriors on horseback were engaged in a battle. Bamboo and pine surrounded heathen temples and pagodas built on rocky promontories. That world seemed like a fairy-tale, but sailors confirmed that it did exist indeed.
Thus, decorations on porcelain became a main source for a visualization of the East among the general public in the Netherlands, leading to an awareness of non-Western cultures and people that gradually became a widespread interest in Europe. Needless to say how bucolic and unrealistic the Western view of China and Japan was. But it suited the political and philosophical search at the time for a role-model, for a country where government was just, where society was in balance and people were happy.
Chinese porcelain became available in larger quantities around 1700, shipped by private traders who had taken over the role of supplier from the VOC. It made a new style of interior decoration possible, propagated by the published designs of Daniel Marot (1661-1752), who was so influential at the Dutch and English courts of William and Mary. Porcelains embellished brackets lining the walls and along mirrors, or were pyramidically placed on the chimney-piece. It was the exuberance of shape and color that now counted, not the single item as depicted in the still-life paintings of the seventeenth century. Private trade also marked the introduction of new types of decoration. Chine de commande (commissioned Chinese) porcelain decorated with Western designs became highly popular from the 1690s onward and forms an outstanding example of East-West interactions.
When the VOC resumed the trade in Chinese porcelain in 1729, it aimed at bulk shipments of ordinary and relatively cheap table and drinking wares, making porcelain available to a broad middle class. Commercial success attracts competitors and Oriental porcelain offered an excellent example of this dictum. Soon after the first cargoes of Chinese porcelain reached the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century, their designs of paneled borders and birds perched on rocks were copied on local maiolica. A far more important development, however, took place in the 1640s when porcelain became scarce due to political upheavals in China. Delftware now became a real alternative. Potters managed to make a thinner type of faïence, which they had often decorated with well-painted Oriental designs, either direct copies from a Chinese model, or a mixture of different elements that were combined in a more or less comprehensive way. The improved Delft proved very successful and many new factories sprang up, concentrated in the town of Delft. The famous “Blue Delft,” which is so integral to the arts and crafts of the Dutch Golden Age, quickly matured and bloomed in full glory!
Delftware from the second half of the seventeenth century is represented in many public and private collections all over the world. Its Oriental-style decoration usually is based on contemporary Chinese porcelain of the so-called Transitional period (1644-1662), showing an overall scene of Chinese figures or animals in a landscape or at a pavilion. This indicates that the Delft potters catered to a modern taste at the time. It also indicates that this Delftware could serve European markets that had less access to Chinese porcelain, but in this way could join in the fashion for Oriental things.
Such Delftware, either in blue or in colored enamels, could be sold only as long as the buyer had an interest in the Far East, and as long as an Oriental design meant exclusiveness, fashion and status. This changed in the eighteenth century. Private imports had already paved the way, but the large-scale imports of the VOC since the late 1720s, and the distribution in the Netherlands of about a million pieces annually in the following years, quickly eroded the exclusivity of the Far Eastern wares. Consequently, there was a rapid rise of Western designs and motifs in Delftware in an attempt to keep abreast of the shifting fashions.
We sometimes encounter well-executed, beautifully made pieces of Delftware, that have been copied almost exactly in Chinese or Japanese porcelain. Such copies apparently were made until deep into the eighteenth century.
Interaction between Oriental porcelain and Delftware is a fascinating subject that tells us much about fashions and trade, about creativity, craftsmanship and the appeal of the exotic. It tells us how aspects of Chinese culture were integrated into Europe. Fortunately, the objects, documenting this interaction, are still abundant, and Delft faïence decorated with Oriental designs forms an essential part of this long and complicated history.