In 1648, the Dutch Republic gained its independence following the Thirty Years War. Freedom from Habsburg Spain led to the rise of a middle class with money to burn. These newly wealthy merchants spent their riches on fashionable decorations for even the mundane, everyday areas in their houses--kitchens and fireplaces.
Early Delft Tiles
Drawing inspiration from maiolica (sometimes spelled majolica) floor tiles manufactured in southern Europe from the 16th century onward, potters in Delft in the Netherlands began creating hand-painted wall tiles for their newly wealthy middle class clients in the early 17th century. These tiles served a dual purpose of decorating utilitarian spaces, such as fireplaces, while also providing an easily cleanable surface.
Early Delft tiles (1620s-1650s) mainly used a palate of blue, orange, and green. The tiles above are the by-product of "Tulipomania," a time in Dutch history where speculation on the hottest commodity of the day, tulips, created the world's first economic bubble. Later 17th and early 18th century tiles emulated fashionable blue-and-white Chinese porcelain brought in to Europe by the Dutch East India Company (below).
Traditional Delft tiles were made of tin-glazed earthenware, a type of ceramic that is much more porous than porcelain, which was not produced in Europe until the early 18th century. Prior to glaze application, the earthenware tiles, usually formed from a mixture of red and white clay, were put through an initial "biscuit" firing. Tin-glaze was then applied to the front of the tile and artists hand-painted the decoration using different colored glazes. The tin-glaze gives these tiles their uniformly glossy, white background color.
Dutch tile-makers brought their techniques to Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow, and London, which grew as centers of production in Britain. The tiles made there first copied Dutch designs. However, in 1756, John Sadler (1720-1789), an engraver in Liverpool, invented a process called “transfer printing.” To create a transfer print, an artist engraved a copper plate with a design. Ink was applied to the plate and transferred to the glazed ceramic tile using paper or glue.
The tiles created by transfer print had crisp, uniform designs and were much easier to mass-produce than hand-painted Delft tiles. Utilizing finer, whiter clays common in Britain, Liverpudlian tile-makers produced tiles that did not suffer as extensively from problems like crazing—a by-product of poor glaze to ceramic fit on the lower-fire earthenware tiles from the Netherlands. On these tiles, the ceramic body and glaze expanded or contracted at different rates creating fine cracks in the glaze that allowed dirt and debris to enter into the ceramic.
Fashion of the Day
My first experience with Delft tiles was at Schloss Nymphenburg (Nymphenburg Palace), near Munich. I was fortunate enough to visit in the summer of 2015. Even before I knew I would be spending a long time researching the tiles, I was fascinated by the amazing designs at the palace (below). They were even used to tile an indoor bath!
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Delft tiles grew exponentially in popularity, spreading across Europe and Asia like wildfire. Eventually, these tiles made their way to Dutch and English colonies in the Americas. Delft tiles fell out of fashion in the early 19th century, but they survive in homes and palaces around the world.
History of Winterthur's Tiles?
Winterthur's tiles are either installed in fireplaces or unmounted. I’m still not sure where the individual tiles in the collection came from, but they are probably not original to the house. I've found some clues on the back of tiles like stickers for antique dealers. The one above reads: “GUITEL MONTAGUE/579 MADISON AVE., N.Y/LIVERPOOL CIRCA 1760/GUARANTEED GENUINE.” Hopefully this sticker will give me potential leads into the history of these tiles--stay tuned!
Watch this blog for weekly updates and follow me on Twitter to learn more about some of the individual tiles I’ll be looking at on #WeirdTileWednesday and #WeirdTileoftheDay. See you next week as I start my condition survey of the tiles in the collection!
For more information about the history of Delft fireplace tiles, see:
Winterthur Postgraduate Fellow in Objects Conservation