Poetic journey across porcelain terrain
Edmund de Waal first threw a pot when he was five, tagging along to evening classes at an art school with his father and older brothers. The following week he had a choice of colours, first to dip it into and then to paint it with. He chose a pure white glaze and left it undecorated. Even then, his aspiration was metaphysical, though he may not have been able to put it into words.
He can now, and how. As he writes in his new book, The White Road: A Pilgrimage of Sorts, it was, “the first pot of tens of thousands of pots, forty-plus years of sitting, slightly hunched with a moving wheel and a moving piece of clay trying to still a small part of the world, make an inside space”.
When he was 17, de Waal found porcelain and his trajectory was set. He had apprenticed himself to Geoffrey Whiting, a student of the British ceramicist and aesthetic ideologue Bernard Leach, and was spending a summer studying in Japan. He visited a famous artist there. “The artist’s wife opened the paper screen with a sound like a sigh, bringing tea in porcelain cups and white bean-curd cakes,” he writes.
The artist gave him a piece of the clay to handle. He doesn’t comment further, but the pil- grimage of the subtitle, through space and time, is a quest for understanding of whatever it was that moment meant.
De Waal’s first book, The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), was an eye-opener and a bestseller. Who knew this leading ceramic artist was the descendant of such a grand and wealthy family? Who knew their remarkable story? Who knew this artist would be such a wonderful writer?
He reprises his autobiography only in fleeting scene-setting snatches in the new book. “I think my childhood was quite odd, choppy with priests, Gestalt therapists, actors, potters, abbesses, writers, the lost, the homeless and family-hungry, God-damaged pilgrims,” he writes. And: “My parents were proud of their open door. The Pope came. Princess Diana came. People came for meals, for weeks, for months.”
He came from an upper-class bohemian milieu and the dissonances echo through the book: the tentativeness and the self-assurance, the ease and the restlessness, the radical outlook on life and the niceties of interpersonal interactions. There’s no mention of anyone in his family having a problem with him chucking school to become a potter.
In porcelain, he found the proper medium for his obsession with the colour — or non-colour, or all-colour — white. “I’ve read MobyDick,” he writes. “So I know the dangers of white … the pull to towards something so pure, so total in its immersive possibility that you are transfigured, changed, feel you can start again.”
Porcelain is made of two substances. One is petuntse, or porcelain stone, which, De Waal says provides the flesh, the translucency and the hardness of body. The other is kaolin, or porcelain clay, which is named for Kao-ling, the mountain near Jingdezhen that has been a source of it for a millennium. Kaolin, he says, is the bones of porcelain. The two materials are fused at super-high temperatures to give the vitreous substance we know.
After Marco Polo’s voyages to China, the technique of this beautiful material’s manufacture was a secret pursued with almost as much fervour as the quest for the philosopher’s stone. Building a kiln adequate to the 1300° required was a quest in itself. De Waal sets out to visit the three key cities in which porcelain was “invented, or reinvented, three white hills in China and Germany and England”. His researches take him even further, to the Versailles of Louis Quatorze, to the tribal lands of the Cherokee Indians, to Dublin and beyond, discovering the marvels, and the terrible exploitations, that flesh out his story.
Louis XIV’s court, for example, was obsessed with discovering what exactly was the porcelain that was making its way to Europe. French Jesuits returned from expeditions to China with such objects as well as amazing stories. Books and conversations about China abounded. Even the philosopher Leibniz wrote about this fabulous place.
If the Sun King and the Kangxi emperor came to understand and respect each other, then France would be blessed with knowledge of the secrets of China: “they are mercantile and they are very practical and they include the glorious secret of how to make porcelain”. In return, China would “see the light of Christ”. From a 1689 inventory, we know the rooms of the dauphin were stocked with 381 pieces of Chinese porcelain.
Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, who came to de Waal as well as to the metropoles of Europe recommended by both Leibniz and Spinoza, enters the story from another direction, that of science. He began to experiment with porcelain in Dresden, while in the employ of the elector of Saxony. Using his famous burning lenses, he experimented with Dutch Delftware and Chinese porcelain, melting them to discover their properties. Eventually, co-opting a technique from a 19-year-old apothecary’s assistant who claimed an alchemic breakthrough, Tschirnhaus succeeded on October 11, 1708. Europe could make porcelain. Two days later, Tschirnhaus died.
The story meanders on, ending with a resumé of the Nazi era: in Dachau concentration camp, under Heinrich Himmler’s SS, prisoners manned a porcelain factory. Here The White Road hooks up with The Hare with Amber Eyes, giving away another topic of burning interest to de Waal: the fate of Europe’s Jews in the 20th century.
The book is immersive and slightly halluci-