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The Key To Delft
( Originally Published 1913 )
"I am afraid this is modern," the connoisseur said. Asked the owner, "How do you know it is modern ? " "It is a copy of a bit of old Dutch delft," the connoisseur said, fingering the blue-and-white platter.
"How do you know ?" the possessor said testily. So testy are possessors sometimes that you had better keep silence than tell them the truth.
Now what is the chief characteristic of this kind of old pottery? Delft is the Dutch name, and dell the English name for it ; earthenware was still called delf by old people in the Midlands, even less than fifty years ago. Delft and delf were earthenware, but all earthenware is not delft or delf. How does one know this old class of pottery from all others, when one sees it ? Many a visitor to Holland brings back pieces which he supposes to be "old Dutch delft." How shall you know the real old stuff from the pleasant blue-andwhite earthenware made at the quaint old city of Delft yesterday ? And how know, for certain, a bit of old English delf, too ?
The key to the wards of these questions is simpleold delft and old delf were surfaced with tin-enamel. Enamel versus Glaze.-The body or substance of the ware was varnished, so to speak, not glazed ; even " varnished " is not the accurate word, for varnish is translucent ; a better word would be "japanned " or "lacquered." Tin-enamel gave a white opaque surface to the ware ; it is a tinny metallic surface, quite different from the clear glaze seen upon porcelain and modern pottery. It is opaque, and that definitely distinguishes it from ware that is glazed ; a glaze would show the old brown clay through, because a glaze is transparent, and you can see through a glaze to the baked clay underneath.
Now the delft being made at Delft to-day is glazed; the old Dutch delft and English delf were not glazed, but tin-enamelled. Its surface, therefore, somewhat resembles the surface of Bilston enamel or other coarse enamels upon metal. But delft and delf consisted of enamel upon clay; and you cannot "see through" its enamel surface down to the substance beneath, as you can with modern delft.
Now this white paint-like metallic surface, not transparent or translucent, is the chief characteristic, and the key of delf and delft.
Exceptions. It is true that a thin coat of glaze was added, over the enamel, to some of the later Dutch old delft, and that English-made delf was slightly glazed, by a wash above the enamel. But in these cases you " see through " the glaze to the enamel. The " key "-the enamel-is always there.
The Enamel Surface. In old Dutch delft the enamel lies close to the clay, and is seldom crazed; the enamel entirely covers the ware, lying on the undersides as well as the upper; this had to be so, because the clay was so soft and friable. Flashing a bit of delft in the light, the eye perceives the tinny, metallic-looking sheen of the surface. You can also feel the enamel ; it may feel smooth, but not with the glassy feel of a glaze. In English delft it is often uneven, creamily uneven. Sometimes the enamel is pitted, sometimes it is blistered, often it has been worn away, usually it has been chipped away at the edges, and then you can see the brown body or substance of the ware.
Under the Enamel. The body or substance of the very oldest Dutch delft consisted of a red earth; the substance of seventeenth and eighteenth century Dutch delft consisted of a yellowish or pale brown earth. In both cases the substance is so soft that a knife can cut or triturate it. There is carbonate of lime in it, and under a drop of strong acid it will effervesce.
Now the body of English delf was denser and more glassy than that; it was less porous, and therefore the enamel did not unite with it so well in the kiln. Consequently the enamel does not lie upon it so closely or evenly, and you oftener see the clay showing through or nearly through. The body of Lambeth delf was buff-colour, and when it shows nearly through it gives the enamel a rosy tinge, which is one of the characteristics of Lambeth and Bristol delf. English delf enamel often crazed in the kiln, and that, I think, is why a subsequent thin glaze was washed over it.
On, and then in, the Enamel. The decoration painted upon old Dutch delft was crude; the wellknown hearth-tiles painted blue upon white are typical of the earliest style, for at first blue was the only colour used. Tiles painted in purple came later, when purple, green, yellow, brown, and red were added to the delftpainter's palette.
The decoration of old Dutch delft was done neither under the enamel nor over it. The tin-enamel was laid on the body, and while the enamel was still wet the decoration was added. For the moment, the decoration was upon the enamel, but the heat of the kiln then liquefied both, and then fixed both, so that the decoration then lay in among the enamel. This is why old Dutch delft decoration is often seen to have "run." In English delf, however, though you see running, the colours have run upon the enamel, not with it; because the decoration was done after the enamel had been fired, and before the final glaze was added.
Thus spoke the connoisseur; but the owner was unconvinced.