Tiles were developed over the centuries as one product of earthenware pottery. Medieval tilers used lead glazes on the red-firing clay which hardened in the firing process, the surface becoming transparent, thus protecting the clay and making it stronger and waterproof. Designs could be inlaid before glazing by stamping them into the clay, then filling these areas with slip ( white liquid clay). Tiles could also be simply covered with slip before glazing, giving them a different colour from tiles without a layer of slip. These could be then be used to make decorative patterns. The earliest tiles were used for flooring. These were largely for churches, "stately homes", or other institutional buildings. Only the wealthy could afford them.
Enter tin-glazed tiles:
However the opportunities for sophisticated decorations required the development of the tin glazes emerging from the Middle Eastern countries. Detailed and beautiful decorations could be created. Islamic conquests spread the glories of Islamic art and architecture further north through Spain. Spanish pottery spread through Italy [via Majorca, hence majolica and the French word faience from Faenza where it was popular] then further north to Antwerp in Flanders (Southern Netherlands) and then further into Northern Netherlands. Colours used in majolica tiles were blue, orange, green, yellow and purple. Over time, the Spanish and Italian influences waned as other influences took precedence and Dutch tiles developed their own special characteristics.
Early in the 17th century the United Dutch East India Company imported blue and white Chinese porcelain and this became all the rage. It was expensive. The Dutch potters tried to imitate the Chinese porcelain but the process for true porcelain was not yet available to them. However, in the town of Delft from the 17th century, the potters created a very superior earthenware product which became known as delftware. The stages in making delftware were briefly as follows: clay was shaped, dried and given a first firing. Tiles were then glazed with liquid white tin glaze. The design was pricked through on a piece of paper, the spons,and when laid on the tile, the pattern was transferred to the tile by pouncing through the holes with charcoal. The outline of the pattern was clear enough for the painter to complete the painting. The tiles were then fired a second time. The firings were at a temperature of 1000 oC (1800 oF) In special cases, some tiles were fired a third time in a muffle-kiln at a lower temperature in order to emphasize colours which would not react well to the high kiln temperatures. The use of Chinese patterns in blue on white on high quality delftware made the similarity to Chinese porcelain sufficient to make the products very popular. Delftware was exported in vast quantities. Tiles were only a part of the Delft output, but the fame of the "Delft blue" pottery was such that the name of Delft became synonymous with Dutch tiles. Habit is hard to break. The main centers for tile manufacture were Rotterdam, Utrecht, and the Friesland towns of Makkum, Harlingen and Bolsward.
When majolica floor tiles proved to be too delicate for heavy usage, tiles moved to the walls. Single tiles and tile-pictures (multiple tiles combining to make a picture-religious, floral, etc.) were used in kitchens, around fireplaces and as baseboards where floors met walls. As the Netherlands is built on rivers, canals, and alongside the sea, tiles were used as insulation and protection against water seeping into houses. Tiles and tile pictures were exported to countries such as Portugal, Spain, France, Germany and Britain. The aristocracy of these countries valued the workmanship and spectacular effects achieved by the tile makers.
One of the great tilers was Guido Andries. Andries had moved from Italy to Antwerp at the beginning of the 16th century, where he changed his name from Guido di Savini. Antwerp and Guido Andries will be discussed in a separate section.
By the 19th century advances in machinery for making pottery and the use of wallpapers undermined the demand for the hand-made tiles. As fashions change, however, an interest in hand crafts returned. Collectors both private and institutional, antiquarians and the small humble tourist, have been both good and bad for tiles. Good when tiles are saved from the wrecker's ball but bad if it encourages the dismantling of remaining in-situ locations- farms, cottages, houses, big and little. Building codes and demolition regulations should be as strong as possible so as to save this fragile heritage.