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Aronson Antiquairs information about the making of Dutch Porcelain

The Making of Hollandts Porceleyn

The arrival of the popular Chinese porcelain on the Dutch market had as result that the Delft Majolica potters had to invent new ways to bring their goods on the market. As they only created a limited choice of tableware (mostly plates, dishes and porringers) in contrast to the so sought after thin and shiny Chinese porcelain, the demands for their wares decreased enormously. Although it was impossible to create a perfect imitation of the exotic objects, the Majolica potters – after overcoming several technical complications – were successful in improving the majolica to such an extent that one can speak of a clear imitation of Chinese porcelain. This development took place around 1620, with Haarlem and Delft playing leading roles in this process of innovation. It was in those cities that Hollandts porceleyn (or Delffse porceleyne) was first produced, as the new pottery was somewhat misleadingly called.[1] Because of the appearance of the ware, this name was justifiable, even though it was not actually genuine porcelain. The first porcelain was yet to be made in Europe almost a century later.[2]

In order to give the majolica the appearance of porcelain – to match the thinness of the body, the clarity and sheen of the glaze, the colour and the fine brushwork – the Dutch potters had to overcome a number of technical problems. First of all, if the dishes were made thinner, they often warped while they were drying. The clay they used was relatively rough and impure, and shrank considerably during firing. By mixing the local clay with special ones imported from Tournai, and careful sieving and washing it, they achieved a better quality.[3] This specially prepared clay shrank less, it resulted in a far thinner earthenware, and it was also possible to turn it into a variety of objects.[4] Furthermore the plates and dishes were no longer rotated only by hand, but were formed to an increasing extent with the aid of a mold. Besides the fact that this was more efficient and it resulted in a greater uniformity, it also made a faithful imitation of Chinese dishes with scalloped edges possible.[5]

Another problem was the type of glazing. A characteristic of majolica is the use of both tin and lead glazes. A tin glaze results in a white, opaque surface, whereas a lead glaze was more cloudy and lacked the bright white colour of the tin glaze. Since the tin glaze was relatively expensive, the potters often used the cheaper lead glaze on the underside of dishes. On the contrary, of course porcelain has its natural white colour and in order to imitate it, the potters had to cover all the surfaces with the expensive tin glaze. So after the initial firing, known as the biscuit firing, the object was completely dipped into tin glaze to make the whole piece appear white. The blue and white decorations were then painted using the in-glaze technique, just like with majolica, and the painted designs and glaze were fired simultaneously to fuse.[6] To give the wares the shine of porcelain, the potters applied another colourless layer of gloss on top of this glaze. This layer, which was called kwaart (a corruption of the Italian word coperta) and was applied before firing, gave the objects not only the shiny look of porcelain but it functioned also as a better protection of the object.[7]

Glazing the objectAnother feature of majolica are the so-called spur marks, which were created during the firing of the plates, dishes or bowls. As the objects were piled up on top of each other in the kilns, the potters placed little tripod stilts or cockspurs between them to prevent the pieces from sticking to each other. In the firing process these spurs usually became attached to the glaze and had to be broken away after the fire, which inevitably left three blemishes in the glaze and thus in the most visible part of the decoration.[8] Since there were no such marks in Chinese porcelain, the potters had to find another way to fire the objects in the kilns. In stead of using spurs they switched to an old Italian technique in which the painted plates were placed in cylindrical saggars with the help of ceramic pegs.[9] These saggars were made of fireclay, able to withstand high temperatures, which protected the wares from flames and smoke in the wood-fired kilns.[10] Each plate rested mostly on three ceramic pegs pushed through the wall of the saggar, which left only three minimal marks on the back of the rim. Finally the inside of the saggar had to be saturated with undiluted lead glaze, and carefully sealed with clay to ensure that the component of the glaze which gives the shine could not evaporate during firing nor be absorbed by the saggar.[11] Other advantages of the use of these saggars was the fact that the pieces were far less exposed to the dangers of falling soot and ash, and the temperature was more even.[12]

In addition to these technical improvements, the potters also changed their colour palette and decorations in order to create a product most similar to the Chinese porcelain wares. The objects were completely white painted with blue decorations, which at first often contained panel borders with Chinese symbols or plants. And also in the central area various scenes were depicted, just as the Chinese porcelain from the Wanli period.

Obviously these improvements did not all happen simultaneously. There are objects known that still look like majolica, but were already fired in saggars. The opposite is also possible: pieces that were fired according to the old method with spurs, but were tin glazed all over.


[1 Scholten, F.T, Dutch Majolica & Delftware, The Edwin van Drecht Collection, 1550-1700 , The Hague (Paleis Lange Voorhout), 1993, p/.19

[2 Idem, p. 22.

[3 Schaap, E. Delft Ceramics at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 2003, p. 14.

[4 Scholten 1993 (note 1), p.22.

[5 Jörg, C.J.A. Oosters porselein. Delfts aardewerk, Wisselwerkingen , Groningen 1983, p.20.

[6 Schaap 2003 (note 3), p.14.

[7 Scholten 1993 (note 1), p.20.

[8 Ibidem.

[9 Idem, p. 21.

[10 Schaap 2003 (note 3), p.17.

[11 Van Dam, J.D. Delffse Porceleyne, Dutch Delftware 1620-1850, Zwolle / Amsterdam (Rijksmuseum), 2004, p. 14.

[12Scholten 1993 (note 1), p.21.

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