The Last Voyage of Delftware Tiles

Delftware tiles from a Dutch shipwreck. Lemvig Historical Museum

Delftware pottery and tiles were in great demand during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The term derives from the Dutch town of Delft where many potteries also produced tiles. Tiles were used functionally, applied to walls and fireplaces. The many scenes and decorations have fascinated people all over Europe and it was an export product until the end of the eighteenth century. The technique of making tiles was introduced to the Low countries by Italian artisans at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Antwerp became the centre of production. The export soon started and tiles have been found for example in Tudor houses in England built about 1520. The war of independence, commencing in 1566, between Spain and the Northern provinces led to the emigration of many merchants and artisans to the Northern provinces. Antwerp, the centre of tiles production, was sacked by Spanish troops and the production spread to the Netherlands. Delft soon became the main centre of production. At the beginning of the seventeenth century the Republic of the United Provinces had emerged as an independent nation with worldwide sea trade and big ports. A large middle class emerged who had the means to buy tiles for their homes. Millions and millions were produced each year. The international break through came when blue-white Chinese porcelain was imported by the East when the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC), founded in 1602.
The success was immense and tiles changed patterns and colours. From 1620, tiles with blue and white colours were common. This is the famous blue white Delftware tiles known today. The scenes and patterns varied from pictures of daily life, people in costumes, animals, flowers, biblical scenes, portraits or soldiers. Soon, however, magnificent tile panels decorated palaces, public buildings, mansions and town halls all over Europe. Royal commissions came from England, France, Poland, Germany, Russia and Sweden. landscapes, sea battles, flower bouquets, hunting scenes and historical allegories.

The decline came as a result of the Napoleonic wars and the rising fashion of other decorations a the beginning of the eighteenth century. Today, only a few factories remain. Not all tiles made it to their destination however. The small but fine historical museum in Lemvig, a small port town in Jutland, Denmark, exhibits delftware tiles from a Dutch shipwreck. The North sea and the Baltic sea were important trading routes. The Dutch East Indies Company had the fame, but most money was earned by Northern and Baltic Sea trade. The Delftware tiles in a small museum in Denmark are the silent witnesses of the economic life line, trade and business links in early modern Europe (source: H. van Lemmen, Delftware Tiles, Buckinghamshire 2005).