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My Delft Blue heaven. By William Cook

Blog | By William Cook | Mar 27, 2024

Johannes Vermeer’s View of Delft (1661)

On the sedate outskirts of Delft, one of the prettiest cities in the Netherlands, a jolly Dutchman called Co van Nieuwenhuijzen is guiding me round the last surviving Delftware factory in the world.

All around us, skilled craftsmen and craftswomen are hard at work, painting intricate patterns onto delicate cups and plates – a process that’s hardly changed since the firm was founded in 1653.

Like the Potteries in Staffordshire, or Meissen in Germany, Delft has become synonymous with the eponymous porcelain that’s been made here for the last 400 years.

Delft Blue (or Delfts Blauw, as the Dutch call it) is familiar the world over, but how much do you know about the place it comes from? If you’re at all interested in ceramics, Delft is a must- see destination – and there’s far more to this lively little city than florid blue-and- white crockery.

Whatever time of year you come, there’s always something going on. This spring, the main attraction is Pioneering Ceramics at the Prinsenhof, Delft’s magnificent art and history museum.

This ambitious new show juxtaposes classic Delftware from the museum’s permanent collection with works by some of the world’s leading contemporary ceramicists. A big part of Delft’s heritage, pottery is also a dynamic and evolving art form, and, right now, in the global art world, it’s never been more fashionable. The best place to start your tour of Delft is at De Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles, aka Royal Delft. During the 17th and 18th centuries, this famous factory was merely one among dozens in the city.

By the end of the 19th century, it was the only one still trading. How did it survive, while its competitors collapsed? And what made Delft such a mecca for pottery in the first place?

During the 17th century (the so-called Golden Age, when the Netherlands led the world in commerce and culture), Delft was one of Europe’s leading ports, enjoying especially strong links with China and Japan.

Dutch merchants brought Chinese and Japanese porcelain to Delft, and demand became so high that Delft’s potters created their own ersatz versions.

They weren’t quite as good as the real thing, but they were better than anything else in Europe, and so Delft became a byword for this exquisite tableware.

By the 19th century, Delftware was already in decline, eclipsed by cheaper tableware from Stoke-on-Trent and intricate figurines from Dresden. Yet, while other potteries in Delft folded, Royal Delft diversified, manufacturing smart new tiles for the building trade. Awarded a royal warrant in 1919, today it’s still going strong, with customers all around the globe.

You can buy all sorts of crockery in the factory shop, with prices ranging from two to three (or even four) figures. An adjoining museum tells the story of the firm’s evolution. The gallery houses special exhibitions – the current display is a riveting survey of Picasso’s joyful, fantastical ceramics.

William the Silent, Nieuwe Kerk

Wandering around Delft, a picturesque network of canals and cobbled alleys, you realise Delftware is integral to the city’s identity. Everyone who lives here seems to have a few precious pieces on display.

Royal Delft has several outlets around town, and there are lots of quirky curiosity shops, where you can hunt for older, more unusual items (try Léon Paul Antiques on Voldersgracht). A new hand-painted piece can set you back several hundred euros, but you can pick up an antique tile for as little as €20. The Prinsenhof has an excellent collection of Delftware, while the museum’s best exhibit is the building itself. Originally a convent, it was appropriated by the Dutch rebel William the Silent, who made it the HQ for his revolt against the Netherlands’ Spanish rulers. The Spanish put a price on his head – and in 1584 an assassin, Balthasar Gérard, duly shot him dead in the stairwell of this robust palace. The wall still bears the bullet holes. Gérard was tortured to death before an enthusiastic crowd in the market square outside, and William became a national martyr, the father of the Dutch state. William was buried in the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) on the market square, and the crypt beneath his ornate shrine became a tomb for all the Dutch rulers who succeeded him. The building is austere yet intensely atmospheric.

Built in the 14th century, it’s called the New Church because the nearby Oude Kerk (Old Church) is even older.

The Oude Kerk is the last resting place of Johannes Vermeer, who spent his whole life in Delft. Today, this sublime and subtle painter is revered worldwide. When he died, in 1675, he was too poor to afford a headstone, and until the end of the 19th century he was almost forgotten. The gravestone that attracts the tourists dates back only to the tricentenary of his death, in 1975.

There are only a few specific sights associated with Vermeer in Delft, but the city he inhabited has been immaculately preserved.

The street plan of the historic old town has hardly changed since his lifetime, and most landmarks from that era have survived. The bland modern suburbs are uninspiring, but there are no new eyesores in the city centre. If one stands on the spot where Vermeer painted his View of Delft, the skyline remains the same.

Getting here is easy. From London, it takes three and a half hours on a direct Eurostar to Rotterdam, then 15 minutes on a local train to Delft. There are several connections every hour. A ticket costs only a few euros.

I stayed at the Hotel Arsenaal on the edge of the old town, a few minutes’ walk from the train station. As the name suggests, it’s housed in a former armoury. ‘AD 1692’ reads the coat of arms above the door. The canal-side location is quiet, and it’s only a short stroll from the city centre (almost all the attractions and amenities in Delft are easily accessible on foot). A military museum until a few years ago, the building now has a contemporary interior that’s chic and comfy, yet it still retains a sense of history and a close connection with the past.

The 1496 Nieuwe Kerk (tower 1892)

There are lots and lots of good places to eat. Delfts Brouwhuis is a microbrewery which serves hearty, wholesome grub, and fresh beer on

tap, brewed out the back. For a more international menu, head for ’t Postkantoor, in the old post office. Hanno is a popular modern rendezvous, serving healthy fusion food.

Although there are lots of tourists around town, the city never feels swamped by sightseers, partly because a lot of visitors are Dutch, but mainly because a lot of locals live and socialise in the city centre.

On my first day, I visited the Museum Paul Tetar van Elven (a handsome townhouse that belonged to a 19th-century painter – everything is exactly as he left it, including his wonderful Delftware collection) and got talking to the friendly lady on the door.

On my last day, walking to the station to catch the train to Rotterdam, I bumped into her again, doing her shopping in the market square. I told her I hoped to be back here soon. She said she’d look out for me.

What a happy place this seems to be. I think you’d like it, too.

Above: Oude Delft, the oldest canal street in the city.

Eurostar London to Rotterdam from £78 return (www.eurostar.com). Doubles at the Hotel Arsenaal (www. hotelarsenaal.com) from €140, including breakfast

Pioneering Ceramics is at the Prinsenhof Museum (www.prinsenhof-delft.nl), 16th February to 8th September