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Man have been making objects of clay for many thousands of years. These were fired at a temperature of 800-1000° Celsius. This type of earthenware is porous and not suitable for liquids. The discovery of lead-glaze, many centuries ago, has been very important. Objects covered with lead-glaze are fired a second time and in the process the lead-glaze melts and hardens into a thin layer of transparent and glasslike material. The object becomes impregnated and waterproof; at the same time the surface is much more interesting and improved.

In the Middle-East, about 1000-600 before Christ, tin-glaze was used. After firing this becomes opaque and a shiny white. The decorations which are applied on top of this white surface stand out clearly. This technique of decoration initiated an important change in ceramic art.

When Egypt, North-Africa and Spain were conquered by Arabic (Islamic) tribes (in the 6th - 14th century), it was not only the Islamic belief that became wide spread, the Islamic art and its highly developed architecture became also widely known.

fig. 1 The polychrome pattern is composed by more than one tile. End of 16th c.

The tiled walls of the Alhambra (14th century), the palace of the Moorish (Islamic) Kings in Granada (Southern Spain) are magnificent examples of Islamic art. Glazing of ceramics was then introduced into Northern-Europe.

Spain developed an industry of earthenware and tiles which flourished in the 15th century. Moorish influences continued to be felt for a long time in the decorations. From Spain a lot of earthenware was exported to Italy. And this contributed to the establishment of an important earthenware industry in Northern Italy.

In the early part of the 16th century, Antwerp was a thriving port and a centre of science and culture, attracting many people from elsewhere, also many Italian potters. Among other things, they made polychrome tiles with ornamental patterns. The colours were blue, green, purple, orange-brown and bright yellow (fig. 1).

fig. 2 Polychrome tile with just a part of the pattern. First half 17th c.

Each tile bears parts of the total pattern (fig. 2), the whole pattern being completed on 4 or 16 tiles, which produced a fine decorated effect (fig. 3).

fig. 3 The entire pattern is built up with 16 polychrome tiles. First half 17th c.

In 1585, during the Eighty Years War, Antwerp was taken by the Spaniards. Trade came to stand still, freedom of religion was put to an end. This resulted in many tradesmen going abroad. Among them were the potters, who left for England, Germany and the Northern-Netherlands.


It is understandable that the first tiles made in the Northern-Netherlands bear much resemblance to those who are made in the southern part of the Low Countries. After some time, about 1600, they begin to show a character which is more genuinely Dutch even if still polychrome. The ornamental pattern of the tile is gradually disappearing. Each tile gets its main motif, such as a portrait, a soldier or an animal, in a circle or a square (fig. 4).

Later we see all kinds of fruit (pomegranates, grapes, oranges and apples) and flowers appearing on the tiles. A characteristic feature is also that blue/white decorations of the corners of each tile, make a new pattern when four tiles are put together (fig. 5).

Early in the 17th century kilns for earthenware and tiles are appearing in Utrecht, Delft, Gouda, Hoorn, Enkhuizen, Makkum and Bolsward.

fig. 4 Polychrome tile with a figurative decor in the central part.
First half 17th c.

fig. 5 Polychrome tiles. The blue-white corners form a pattern by themselves. First half 17th c.

From about 1620 the well-known blue tiles appeared beside the polychrome ones. On blue tiles, the pattern is painted in blue on the opaque white tin-glaze sub-layer. Why in blue?

About the year 1602 the first blue Chinese porcelain came to Holland as a result of the trade with China. This porcelain was called "kraak-porcelain" because the first porcelain that was traded on the Dutch market came from Portuguese ships that were captured by the Hollanders. These were "carracas"-type ships (kraken), hence the term "kraak-porcelain".
Millions of China bowls, jugs and dishes were shipped to Amsterdam by the East Indian Company (fig. 6).

From Amsterdam the costly China was further traded through Europe. This Chinese porcelain was much in demand and expensive. The Delft potters and those in other towns tried to imitate the Chinese porcelain and applied the Chinese decorations to the earthenware they made.

fig. 6 Blue Chinese porcelain dish.
First half 17th c. Imported.

fig. 7 Blue tile. Motif borrowed from imported Chinese porcelain.
First half 17th c.

Between 1640 and 1800 Chinese porcelain was most successfully imitated in Delft. The potters called themselves "porcelain-potters". This was not correct because the products they made were of earthenware. In Europe the process of making China porcelain was not yet known at that time. Porcelain was first made in Germany in 1709. With the imitation of the blue China imported from China, also blue tiles made their appearance (fig. 7).

The "Delft blue" became world famous, to such an extend that it became the general name for all earthenware objects and tiles which were painted in the same blue colour, even if they not had been made in Delft. "Delft blue" is known all over the world.

With prosperity in general on the increase, tiles became to be more in demand. They found ample application in houses, such as round chimney places, in corridors, round staircases, in kitchens and as lintels. The tiles were painted with scenes from daily life, such as men on horseback, soldiers, men and women during their work, ships, children playing, landscapes and with scenes from the Bible (fig. 8 to 12).

fig. 8 Owl. Second quarter 17th c.

fig. 9 Lady with a mill-collar. Second quarter 17th c.

fig. 10 Merchantman. Middle 17th c.

fig. 11 Children playing.
Second half 17th c.

fig. 12 Bible tile. Travelling to Egypt.
Second half 19th c.

The craftsmen who painted the tiles were general not accomplished artists and often used prints from famous artists as an example. The engravings by Pieter Schut (1615-1660) served as examples for the biblical scenes painted on tiles. We know of 592 different biblical scenes depicted on tiles.

Thousands of tiles and many tile-pictures (two or more tiles together become a picture or decoration) in blue and in manganese, but also polychrome, were made to order for palaces, churches and convents in Portugal, Spain, the Azores, Brazil, France, Germany, Poland, Denmark and even Russia. These orders were mainly carried out by potters in Rotterdam, Delft, Harlingen and Makkum.

fig. 13 Tile picture with a ship "Tlandt van Belofte", Amsterdam, Gerrit de Graaf (1732-1794). 

Famous are among others the large tile-pictures with views of harbours and rivers painted by Cornelis Boumeester in the tile factory "De Bloempot" at Rotterdam. Fine specimen are to be seen in palace Saldanha in Lissabon (ca. 1715) and the castle of Rambouillet in France which is still open for visitors. The largest tile-pictures ever made in the Netherlands can be seen in the convent church of Madre de Deus at Lissabon, one picture even consists of 931 tiles! In the large hall of the Beauregard Castle, near Blois (province Loir-et-Cher) France, one finds a floor composed of 7.145 different blue tiles from ca. 1627. The tiles have soldiers as a decoration in blue. In the course of some centuries these tiles, which meant to be wall tiles, but which were used as floor tiles, have suffered considerable damage notably by the German occupation in World War II. In the visitors guide of the museum this tiled floor is described  as "unique en France and as "A whole army on the march" (Toute une armée en marche).

Some very fine tiled wall-pictures were made in Friesland in about 1740 and later (fig. 13).  Some were ordered by sailors who lived on the islands of the German and Danish coasts and who sailed in Dutch merchant ships and whaling vessels. When they had made a profitable voyage, these sailors ordered a tiled wall-picture depicting one particular ship. Sometimes the name of the ship and as well the name of the captain were mentioned on it. Some of these tile-pictures of ships are still to be seen on the islands and also in museums in North-Germany and Denmark.

fig. 14 Ornamental tiles painted in purple. The pattern is composed by more than one tile. Second half 18th c.

At the end of the 17th century the purple tiles came in demand, beside the blue ones. In Friesland blue has always remained predominant. In the second half of the 18th century, the ornamental tiles, which showed the influence of the so-called Lodewijk-styles, regained importance (fig. 14).

fig. 15 Chimney of the Zaan region, called "Smuiger". Decorated with blue tiles depicting with scenes of the Bible. Originating from a house in Wormer.

In some parts of the Netherlands e.g. in the provinces of Zeeland, Friesland and Overijssel, the walls of the living room and the kitchen were tiled from floor to ceiling. In the Zaan region and West-Friesland we find a special type of chimney piece which was completely tiled, which bows forward at the top, called the smuiger (fig. 15). The tiles are painted with scenes from the Bible.

In the second half of the 19th century the manufacture of tiles decreased as a result of a declining economical situation and the competition of mass-produced industrial tiles from England and Germany. Moreover wallpaper came into fashion, which was much cheaper!

fig. 16 Jugendstil tile. Early 20th c.

Around 1900 there was a small revival in the manufacture of tiles: then Art-nouveau motifs were depicted on tiles which were mainly applied in buildings, in porches and above windows (fig. 16).
Three Dutch tile factories are still operating dating from the second half of the 17th century:

  • Tichelaars Koninklijke Makkumer aardewerk en tegelfabriek b.v. Makkum, anno 1660.

  • N.V. Koninklijke Delftsch Aardewerkfabriek "De Porceleyne Fles", anno 1653.

  • B.V. Faience- en Tegelfabriek "Westraven" in Utrecht, anno 1661. In 1963 this factory was taken over as a daughter by the N.V. Koninklijke Delftsch Aardewerkfabriek "De Porceleyne Fles".

Recently tiles and the tile-making business are regaining interest. At the present day, tiles are being made in the same way as it used to be done in Makkum, Harlingen, Utrecht and Rotterdam, centuries ago. The manufacturing process has been simplified, but the painting of the decoration on the tiles is still being done in the old style and manner; the decorations applied are also mostly from days long ago.

fig. 17 "Spons" with inscription "PG 24 sponsen", Harlingen ca. 1685 (PG = Pieter Grauda).


  1. Various kinds of clay are mixed.

  2. The mixture of clay is washed with water. Straw, little stones etc. are washed out.

  3. The mixture of clay is rolled out into tablets.

  4. With the aid of a frame, tiles are pressed out of the tablet.

  5. The wet clay-tiles are dried.

  6. The tiles are fired in a kiln at ca. 1000 C°.

  7. One side of the tile is covered with tin-glaze. This tin-glaze looks like white slip, it is a mixture of tin-ashes, quartz, sand, soda and water.

  8. The tile is decorated. The decoration pattern is applied by means of a piece of pounced paper (fig. 17). The stencil (in Dutch called 'spons') carries the lines of the pattern in pricked holes. This stencil is laid on the tin-glazed side of the tile. A pouch with charcoal powder is pressed onto the stencil and charcoal dust is forced through the holes, so that the decoration appears in black marks on the tile.

  9. The painter draws lines along the black dust tracks and proceeds to finish the drawing by painting light and shade.

  10. The tile is fired a second time at about the same temperature. The tin-glaze melts into a white opaque layer, in which the painted decoration stands out clearly.


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  • Huijg, A - De bijbel op tegels, Boxtel, Katholieke bijbelstichting, 1978.

  • Joliet, Wilhelm - Die Geschichte der Fliese, Verlagsgesellschaft Rudolf Müller, Köln, 1996.

  • Kaufmann, G. - Bemalte Wandfliesen, München, Verl. Callwey, 1973.

  • Korf, D. - Tegels, 7e druk, Bussum, Unieboek, 1979.

  • Korf, D. - De tegelverzameling Nanne Ottema in het "Princessehof" te Leeuwarden. Afl. van het "Mededelingenblad van de Vrienden van de Nederlandse ceramiek", 1969, nr. 56/57.

  • Lemmen, Hans, van - De Nederlandse Tegel, Uitgeverij Elmar B.V., Rijswijk, 1997.

  • Lüden, C. und W. - Holländische Fliesen in Norddeutschland, Heide, Boyens & Co., 1978.

  • Lunsingh Scheurleer, D.F. - De verzameling tegels in het Rijksmuseum "Zuiderzeemuseum" te Enkhuizen. Overdruk van "Uit het Peperhuis", 1966, serie 3, nr. 5/6.

  • Lunsingh Scheurleer, D.F. - Zeewezens op tegels, Lochem, De Tijdstroom. 1970.

  • Nederlandse tegels ca. 1600-1800. 's-Gravenhage, Haags gemeentemuseum, 1974.

  • Paape, G. - De plateelbakker of Delftsch aardewerkmaaker, Amsterdam, Buyten & Schipperheijn/Repro-Holland, 1979. Fotomechanische herdruk.

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  • Pluis, J. - Bijbelse voorstellingen op tegels en Fries aardewerk,tentoonstellingscatalogus, Otterlo, Tegelmuseum "It Noflik Sté", 1972.

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  • ALKMAAR : Stedelijk museum "De Nieuwe Doelen"

  • AMSTERDAM : Rijksmuseum, zie ook de studiecollectie - Museum Willet-Holthuysen

  • DELFT : Rijksmuseum "Huis Lambert van Meerten"

  • ENKHUIZEN : Rijksmuseum "Het Zuiderzeemuseum"

  • GOUDA : “Pijpen- en aardewerkmuseum De Moriaen”, Stedelijk Museum

  • 's-GRAVENHAGE : Gemeentemuseum

  • HARLINGEN : Gemeentemuseum "Het Hannema Huis"

  • HOORN : Westfries Museum

  • LEEUWARDEN : 1) Fries Museum; 2) Museum "Het Princessehof"

  • LEIDEN : Gemeentemuseum "De Lakenhal"

  • OTTERLO : Nederlands Tegelmuseum

  • ROTTERDAM : 1) Museum Boymans van Beuningen; 2) Historisch museum "De Dubbele Palmboom"