This blue and white Dutch trivet from a prior QBO sale is made of tiles framed in wood. It depicts two arguing men, a third, self- satisfied middle-man, and a disgruntled dairy cow. And yes, it is meant to be funny – it’s essentially an early political cartoon. So what exactly is the point being made by this trivet and is it still relevant 200-300 years later?
Well, the two men locked in the tug-of-war are probably farmers, but the gentleman seated in the middle, smugly milking the cow for himself while they tussle is definitely not a farmer. His long curly wig, glasses and the sheaf of legal papers tucked under his arm identify him as a lawyer or judge, as does the big stack of books he’s sitting on. The Dutch-language caption “Die pleit om een Koe, geeft er één toe” translates as “He who sues for a cow concedes one”. In other words, when you sue someone, no matter what the outcome, it is the judiciary that ultimately wins, not the accuser or the defendant. The fact that the battling farmers are not in the same economic class as the lawyer/judge just adds to the sting. And, although the building in the distance here resembles a farmhouse, on other, larger versions of this ‘cartoon’ it is clearly a church, throwing a distant and disinterested religious authority into the mix. So, the argument could be made that the witty dig is as relevant as ever (alas).
The cow tug-of-war was a popular comedic theme that was copied by different tile manufacturers; it was one of many popular designs from a 300 year-long run of Dutch ceramic making during which over 800 million tiles were produced by hundreds of manufacturers across the Netherlands. Most factories were concentrated in Delft or Harlingen, but this particular design may have originated in Utrecht.
There are some versions of this design in brown or magenta, but most are the classic blue and white associated with tin-glazed Delft ceramics. The majority of vintage “Delft tiles” measure a little over 5″ square. (“Delft tile” refers to all blue and white Dutch-made tiles). They are a standardized size because they were first used to tile fireplaces. This version of the tug-of-war is contained within two tiles, but there are larger versions where the same ‘cartoon’ is expanded onto 6 tiles. This trivet has no makers’ mark, and although some tile manufacturers did incise marks into the backs of their products, it’s much more common to find marks on 3- dimensional pottery. Once grouted into place, any marks on a tile would be invisible, so why bother?
Eventually fancy blue and white tiles became so popular that in wealthy European households entire rooms were tiled. Today almost every antique Dutch tile available would have once been installed in a fireplace or on a wall. Evidence of earlier grouting or soot-staining on the unglazed back is one way to tell antiques from reproductions.
The many iterations make dating this trivet difficult, but over centuries Dutch ceramic makers refined their techniques, allowing tiles to be made increasingly thinner. So, the heavier the tile, the older it is, with the thickest dating to the late 16th – early 17th century. Around 1750 the optimum thickness for wall tiles was achieved and so remained the same for the next 100 years.
If you’d like to learn more, the book “The Dutch Tile: Designs and Names 1570-1930” by Jan Pluis is reportedly the absolute best but at over $150, well, you better shop for it at Queen B! And don’t forget, “Die pleit om een Koe, geeft er één toe.” 😉 We’ll see you soon.