It is noon hour and if it wasn't for the Honda S2000 and the scooters whizzing over the bridge among the avalanche of bicycles, the tranquil little picture postcard town of Delft in central Holland might be stuck in a time warp. The supposed location of the film "Girl in a Pearl Earring," based on the life of famous Dutch artist, Jan Vermeer, who lived here in the 17th century, it was also home to King William of Orange, founder of the Dutch nation, who is buried in the beautiful old church overlooking the canal.
While Delft enjoyed great prominence in those days, now it is a quiet, picturesque, little town, with colourful barges moored along the canal as shoppers on bicycles make their morning purchases at the tiny shops, along the cobblestone streets. A local café regularly wins the "Most delicious Bread Roll in the Netherlands" contest. But Delft is not as sleepy as it looks. A centre of industry and commerce since the 16th century, now there's a Technical University, but it is best known for the world renowned Delft Pottery Koninklijke Porcelyne Fles founded in 1653, still producing the same distinctive hand-painted blue ceramic pottery for which it became world famous Once there were 30 pottery factories centred in the region; now, only the original in Delft survives and the small workshop and factory produces enough product lines for a world market.
Traditionally, Royal Delft is well known for tile paintings but the largest project ever attempted at the historic pottery was to celebrate the Millennium. Inspired by the works of Rembrandt and the Dutch masters at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the centrepiece of which is Rembrandt's famous life-size painting "The Night Watch," the company produced a life-size reproduction of the "Night Watch" on porcelain tiles.
A unique undertaking, the modern masterpiece consists of 480 tiles 18 x 18 cm in diameter, slightly larger than the painting but after shrinking during firing it was the same size as the original. Two master painters, Jos van de Giessen and Nico de Graaf, both of whom have over 30 years experience, worked on the project for over two years. Starting from a computer generated charcoal outline and a copy of the picture, they painted about 4 or 5 hours a day.
You can take a tour through the pottery and watch these painters and other experts at work. It is an intricate job which requires great skill and concentration but they remain patient and charming as they field questions and comments from visitors in excellent English as well as demonstrate the process, which hasn't changed much since the 17th century.
Delft pottery is inspired from Chinese Ming pottery and other designs from the Far East, brought back by early Dutch traders. The secret of the "Delft Blue" is in the firing. The basis of the paint is cobalt oxide and the designs are black when painted; it is the firing process which creates the original Delft Blue. The secret process was discovered in Belgium and while there have been many copies, they are not authentic if they don't have the original Royal Delft trademark.
The Pottery Museum has an interesting collection of porcelain, and French Empire furniture much of which came from the private collection of King William III. The completed "Night Watch" masterpiece was placed on display there, before being sold to a private collector.
The asking price was a half million guilders, but you can buy a piece of distinctive blue delft pottery for much less at the gift shop on the premises, which has a varied selection of both one of a kind and mass produced pottery at reasonable prices. The Royal Delft Pottery Museum and Gift shop is open most days. Admission is 4 Euros.
Tess Bridgwater is a travel writer who lives in southwestern Ontario, not far from Oxford County. She writes for the Record and other publications in Kitchener/Waterloo County, national magazines and is a member of SATW, the Society of American Travel Writers.
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