Saturday 12 April 2014

Royal Delft: De Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles

Back in the Dark Ages before mobile internet was established, we were never particularly brave travellers. It would have been highly unlikely for us to have made use of our one day train pass as extensively as we did. But with the safety net of Google Maps in place, we were able to make the most of our holiday, going straight to Delft after our morning in Keukenhof. With only two full days to spend in The Netherlands, we weren't able to properly explore Delft's city centre. Still, M was keen on going to see the heart of Delftware, so we made a visit to Royal Delft, where ceramics meet Dutch history. 

Delft Canals and Canal Boats

One of my favourite paintings in the Rijksmuseum is A Windmill on a Polder Waterway (In the Month of July), not just for how pleasing it looks aesthetically, but also the rather inspired quote included in the painting's details. Its artist wrote in a letter "Our country is saturated with colour... I repeat, our country is not grey, not even in grey weather", and even in the grey weather we encountered in Delft, we found the city to be far from drab. Right outside the station, we had to do a spot of deft navigation around the tricky maze of construction, but once we hit one of the city's many canals, we had a very pleasant walk past all the houses along the way. My phone died halfway through, taking with it the maps I'd painstakingly loaded while we had a WiFi signal on the train. With a bit of luck and a lot of fervent prayer, we  managed to make a correct turn, and hey presto! we found the Royal Delft in the end.

The Royal Delft Experience that we went through was unveiled only in 2012, and consisted of two different audio-visual experience rooms before a meandering audio-guided tour around a number of different locations throughout the building. The first room traced the history of Delftware and of De Porceleyne Fles (The Porcelain Jar), the last of the many Delftware factories of the 17th century, that now exists as the Royal Delft after being recognized by the Dutch Royal Family in 1919, for their longstanding work in popularizing the region as well as Dutch ceramics. 

The second room came complete with mock-ups of kilns and vases at every stage of the production process that would pop-up every now and again when appropriate. It also highlighted the importance of the master painters throughout Royal Delft's storied history, both in inspiring new artistic energies into their design trajectory, and also allowing the production of Delftware to retain their crafting traditions.  

While holidaying in Malta, I met a Dutch lady from Delft who lived just across the street from the Royal Delft. She said that most locals don't deign to visit such touristy places, but she did enjoy looking out her window every once in a while to see where each new coach-load of foreign visitors were from. It always amuses me, the places locals will and won't go, and it makes me wonder how much of my own country I'm missing out on that perhaps only exists in the minds and lives of tourists. 

This trip for us was all about doing the decidedly touristy thing, which still has to be experienced. We faithfully went through each and every room on the tour, listening to what the audio-guide has to tell us about the painting process. We moved from green Delft, to colourful Delft to blue Delft, to the Vermeer dining room in honour of the famous Delft native, the collection of Delft Blue antiques and so on. There must have been everything that could be made of porcelain in those rooms. We'd spent the morning getting bowled over by seemingly endless arrays of flowers and we'd continued this streak of excess to include crockery as well.

The Royal Delft's strong ties with the Dutch Royal Family was also in evidence during the tour, with a whole bunch of commemorative pieces on display, including this striking plate that married Delft blue with the orange of the House of Oranje Nassau.

We eventually came to the studio floor, where a potter was at work shaping what I guessed would ultimately become a soup tureen. It's interesting what crafting workshop options are available at various famous ceramic producers, and how it reflects their specialties. A long time ago we visited the Wedgwood factory and had a go on on the potter's wheel. Half my allotted lump of clay went flying, but the very tiny vase I ended up with was still fired to their emblematic matte blue shade. Here at Royal Delft, all the workshops have to do with the painting and decoration process. 

There was also a hint of the Dutch colonial past in the courtyard surrounding the inner gardens, with the building ceramics, in a mixture of geometric patterns and undulating swirls reminiscent of Indonesian design. 

We're not particularly well-versed in the art of collecting crockery. At best I suppose we could be called enthusiastic amateurs. While M dithered over trinkets and I fell in love with a flowering brain on a vase, D went mad over a set of cups in the store. Eventually we got the cups and a few small pieces that M decided were worth the price before settling down for some cake at the Royal Delft cafe to get a taste of the whole experience even if we didn't have quite enough stomach space for the whole works of afternoon tea. We looked out into the garden in between nibbles, and watched others in our little corner of the world go by. 

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