What is the item all the young, new-wave interior designers are trying to get their hands on at the moment? Not a limited-edition chair from Milan or a sculptural chandelier, but 400-year-old, hand-painted tiles hailing from the small Dutch city of Delft.
Delft tiles were first produced in the Dutch Golden Age as a response to Chinese blue-and-white glazed porcelain, and have since become instantly recognisable throughout the world for their cobalt blue and white-grey colour. They’ve been exported, replicated and collected by keen-eyed connoisseurs ever since production largely ceased in the 18th century, when cheaper British reproductions put Dutch potters out of business.
Recently, a new generation of makers have been turning their hand to the antiquated craft, with Instagram-savvy crafts people and young interior designers drawn to the pictorial designs.
Authentic antique tiles are identifiable by their greyish-white tin-lead glaze (which was found to be toxic for potters around 1900 and is no longer used) and fine, hand-painted illustrations in cobalt blue, which range from ornate depictions of Dutch life — canal barges or village fetes — to drawings of animals, fruits and, in rare instances, mythical creatures.
“The ones I love are those painted with little angels or sea monsters,” says Tony Niblock, co-founder of bespoke cupboard maker Plain English. He began collecting the tiles 30 years ago after viewing a Georgian house that had a Delft-clad fireplace and becoming obsessed. He also likes “the really simple drawings of children, and those with a couple of golfers, or missionaries holding crosses up and marching”.
A tracing technique allowed painters to reproduce the same image repeatedly with only very slight variations, creating a system of early mass