Delftware: Bristol’s Collection

In 2021, Bristol Museum began an exciting two-year project funded by Arts Council England.

Amber Turner

Curator – Applied Arts

The project aimed to raise the profile of Bristol’s important collection of delftware. At over 2,000 pieces, it’s one of the largest in the UK.

What is delftware?

In Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands delftware was the name given to tin-glazed earthenware. This type of pottery is also known elsewhere as maiolica (Italy) and faience (France). Delftware has a clay body coated with a glaze containing lead and tin oxide. Adding tin makes the glaze opaque and white. This technique may have come from Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) over 1,000 years ago. It first spread to Spain and Italy before continuing to Northern Europe. 

Tin-glazed earthenware was made in Britain from the late 1500s. Bristol became one of the key centres of production. Initially, it was called ‘galleyware’, ‘white ware’, ‘delf’ or, simply, earthenware. The term delftware comes from the city of Delft in the Netherlands. In the 1600s, potters there became skilled at copying Chinese porcelain which was a fashionable but costly import. 

By the end of the 1700s new, stronger types of ceramics started to replace delftware. By the 1800s delftware production in Britain had almost come to an end. Bristol’s collection allows us to explore this once thriving industry through objects that were part of everyday life. 

How was delftware made?

Preparing the clay 

Two types of clay were needed to made delftware. Local iron-rich clay, suitable for throwing and moulding, was combined with another clay containing a high level of calcium carbonate or chalk. This helped the object withstand high temperatures in the kiln and prevented it from shrinking and cracking. 

Potters on the west coast of England, such as at Bristol and Liverpool, imported this chalky clay from Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland. The clay was dissolved in tanks filled with water to separate it from stones and other impurities. The mixture was then strained into drying tanks to let the water evaporate. 

The smooth clay was trodden or kneaded to remove air bubbles. 

Image: Mixing the clay in tanks, from D. Diderot’s Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, Paris, 1751, Fayencerie, plate I.

Shaping the clay 

Potters threw the clay on a wheel or shaped it using a mould. Once shaped and formed the wares were set aside to dry until they were ‘leather-hard’. Large dishes called chargers were sometimes coated in white slip (liquid clay) to make the clay paler like porcelain. 

Biscuit firing 

Once dry, the objects were fired in the kiln at a temperature of 980-1000 degrees Celsius. This is known as the biscuit firing. The biscuit wares emerged from the kiln hard and porous. 


Objects were then dipped into the white tin glaze, which soaked into the fired clay forming a powdery white surface. They were handled carefully at this stage to ensure that the glaze did not come off. 


The painter could then decorate the pot. Pigments were made from metal oxides: cobalt for blue, manganese for purple, iron for red, copper for green and antimony for yellow. 

The painter had to be confident as they only had one chance to get the decoration right. This is what gives delftware its spontaneous quality. Before they are fired, the colours look different. Here the cobalt blue looks grey. 

Final firing 

Once the painting was completed, the object was fired for a second time, fusing the paint and the glaze to the body. 

Making and using delftware  

Making delftware was a complex process. Workers had specific roles ranging from mixing clay to packing the kiln. The industry produced a lot of waste and kiln firings caused pollution in the city. Life could be hard for workers, who were exposed to hazards such as lead glazes and toxic pigments. Apprenticeships usually lasted for seven years and provided cheap labour. Delftware was a visible part of daily life in the late 1600s and the 1700s.  

Most of the examples on display at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery are highly decorated objects used for celebrating, feasting, gifting and display. But some wares were for everyday use at home or work that were also important products. The glaze is waterproof, making objects practical and versatile. But the material was brittle, so most objects have chips in the glaze.  

Design and decoration  

The white surface of delftware made it ideal for decoration. Delftware painters drew on a range of styles from across the world. This continued a long history of stylistic exchange, brought about by the movement of goods and people.  

Initially, painters were inspired by Italian tin-glazed earthenware known as maiolica. Imported into England from the Mediterranean from the 1400s, it was a luxury product. From the 1600s, Chinese porcelain was more widely available in Europe and became the key source of inspiration.  

Besides other ceramics, English and European prints were important design sources. Delftware was also a cheaper alternative to expensive materials such as silver and some objects mimicked metalwork forms. 

Delftware in society  

Delftware was not a luxury material used by the wealthiest in Britain. But it was still too expensive for the poorest. Instead, it reflected the tastes of a growing social class of people with increasing wealth such as merchants, professionals and landowners.  

As incomes rose during the 1700s, standards of living improved for some. Leisure activities grew and objects made for socialising survive in large numbers. Drinking wares offer glimpses into pub culture, while tea wares were often used in the home.  

Material goods like these can reveal disturbing truths. Commodities such as sugar, used in tea and punch, were planted and harvested by enslaved African people forced to labour on British plantations in the Americas and Caribbean. As these products became more widely available, demand for vessels to store, prepare and serve them increased.  

Pottery and politics  

Delftware was decorated with images that were meaningful to the people who owned and used it. Many objects reflected popular opinion as well as personal loyalties. Today we are familiar with mugs and plates commemorating an event or a person. In the past potters supplied similar mass-produced objects recording individuals and moments of historic importance.  

Election pieces were made to encourage and influence voters. At the same time, some designs showed a growing desire for fairness and freedom of speech. Delftware designs also reflected the growth of the British Empire, with household objects decorated with symbols of trade and warfare.  

Related objects