Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery

Rose Bowl Things of Beauty Growing
Rose Bowl Things of Beauty Growing
Michael Cardew’s rose bowl.

Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery is both an exhibit and a book that if you are in any way involved with clay, you must not miss. The exhibit is currently at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, CT where it remains through December 3. It moves to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK where it can be seen March 20 through June 18, 2018. Really, you must go see this.

The book, a hefty tome, edited by Glenn Adamson, Martina Droth and Simon Olding contains thoughtful and provocative essays, splendid photos of the works on exhibit, a timeline, and, of particular delight, photos of potters by Ben Boswell. No, you cannot curl up with Things of Beauty Growing. It is too heavy and too large. Find yourself a comfortable chair where you can open it across both your thighs, or read it at a table. And you probably shouldn’t eat or drink while you are reading because if you spill on one of the pages, you will cry.

Glenn Adamson tells us that the title Things of Beauty Growing is taken from a Michael Cardew quote: “If you are lucky, and if you live long enough, and if you trust your materials and you trust your instincts, you will see things of beauty growing up in front of you, without you having anything to do with it.” He explains that the curators wanted to show “the sense that pottery has a life of its own.” He goes on to say that the “exhibition takes typologies of the vessel as its organizing structure. It shows that archetypal ceramic forms mark out their own internal chronology, as well as stages in trajectory thinking.” The focus is on the twentieth-century.

The first half of the book includes essays on such topics as exhibits, the factory, pottery in popular culture (love the record album covers!), origins, and what Edward S Cooke, Jr. calls “The Ideology of the Wheel.” This is followed by the catalog itself which is divided into thematic sections: Moon Jar, Vase, Bowl, Charger, Set, Vessel, Pot, and Monument. This is also how the exhibit itself is arranged.

Things of Beauty Growing Bernard Leach
Tree of Life charger by Bernard Leach

Neither the exhibit nor the book is a survey of British studio ceramics or a history, or even a “best of.” Potters you love and admire, potters I love and admire, are missing. Nevertheless, collectors and potters will recognize all the names, and will be familiar with most if not all of the works, if only from years of looking at photos in books and magazines. I was glad that I had read the book before attending the exhibit. Still, I was not prepared to see “in person” pots I had seen as images all my potting life. Even after looking at them portrayed in highly professional photographs in the book, I was stunned.

We begin with the story of the 18th century Korean moon jar that Bernard Leach shipped home to England in 1935 and which eventually became Lucie’ Rie’s and now resides in the British Museum in London. There are two photos of this legendary jar in the book: the jar itself, and a photograph of Lucie Rie seated next to it in her London studio. The exhibit opens with Adam Buick’s interpretation of the moon jar followed by the moon jars of Akiko Hirai and Gareth Mason. From the moon jars we move onto Vase. We see not only Bernard Leach’s interpretations, but also a few of the Song Dynasty vases that inspired him.

These were under glass, but the two-handled jar made by Edwin Beer Fishley in Devon about 1900 was out in the open on a pedestal. I had all I could do to keep from running my hands up the walls to feel Fishley’s throwing. Of course, I knew better, and the guard, probably reading my body language as I peered inside the pot, kept her eyes on me. This pot is beautifully photographed in the book but no photograph can completely convey the power of the volume of this pot, the strength and rigor of the throwing lines, and the incredible dark green glaze breaking to deep purple.

Lucie Rie in Things of Beauty Growing
Breakfast set by Lucie Rie

I will not list all the names – Shoji Hamada, Michael Cardew, Alison Britton, William Staite Murray, Hans Coper, Lady Kwali, Magdalene Odundo – and on and on, that you encounter walking through the exhibit or turning the pages of the book, as that is not the point, though it was dazzling to see their works all together. No the point is to see the sets made by Lucie Rie and Ruth Duckworth and the chargers made by Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew and Ralph Toft and the bowls, and vessels and pots. Topology!

My bias is towards traditional, functional wares but that is not the bias of the book or the exhibit. We see Julian Stair’s monumental jars that can hold a person’s body, and Grayson Perry’s decaled and gilded urns. We see Edmund de Waal’s a place made fast (dare I say it? – I love his books but was disappointed in his installation but glad to see it for myself after seeing photos of it). The exhibit and book close with Halima Cassell’s installation of vessels made from clay she has collected from around the world.

Clare Twomey Things of Beauty Growing
Made in China by Clare Twomey

And then there is Clare Twomey’s Made in China installation, which includes 80 vases, 79 made in Jingdezhen, China and one in Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, England. The 79 are decorated with decals and identical. The one from England is hand-decorated with eighteen-karat-gold. Of course, you must find the one, not an easy task when they are all the same size and shape and red and gold. Happily, I did find it, and immediately realized that one of the amusements for the guards is watching people search for the 80th jar. The guard knew as soon as I had found it, and came over and chatted, a light-hearted way to end a museum tour, though I realize Twomey’s installation is political and not light-hearted.

Exhibits are ephemeral but books last. With Things of Beauty Growing, the book/catalog brings depth, discussion, and insight. The essayists do not all share a point of view; they have different opinions and outlooks, which is enriching. This is a book you might talk back to. Even if you can’t get to the exhibit, though I strongly urge you to see it if at all possible, the book is an excellent addition to a potter’s library and education, a book to return to again and again.

Crocker Farm, The Forgotten Freeman Potter, and More

Thomas Commeraw Jar

I knew that even if I hadn’t spent eight hundred plus dollars to fix my truck (it failed emissions), I would not be able to afford to participate in the Crocker Farm March auction. Still, I indulged myself and ordered the print edition of the catalog. Oh what a lovely thing it is. There are over five hundred pieces of early American stoneware and redware pots, all beautifully photographed, and described.

Crocker Farm was founded in 1983 by Anthony and Barbara Zipp and now includes their sons Brandt, Luke and Mark. They have made themselves experts on early American ceramics by studying eighteenth and nineteenth century census records, newspapers, city directories, books, local lore and the pots themselves. They deeply research each of the pots they auction and share that information in their online and print catalogs, in videos and lectures.

The pages of the March 2017 catalog are filled with wonderful pieces. There are lead glazed redware dishes and jars, splashed with manganese or copper; salt-glazed stoneware vessels with cobalt decorations – incised, stamped, brushed; Albany slip and alkaline glazed stoneware. Jars. Jugs. Pitchers. Churns. Inkwells. Oyster jars. Plates. Impressive big ware – a ten-gallon pitcher thought to be for a showroom window. Miniatures, perfectly thrown.

I especially loved the signed and dated stoneware jar by Dave, the famous slave potter. It holds about eight gallons, a testament to his legendary skill on the wheel. It is covered in a lovely tan, alkaline glaze. There are pieces from the well-known Crolius family, one a particularly wonderful ovoid jug, the elegant swelling form they perfected, plus pots from the Remmey family of Manhattan.

Thomas Commeraw Ovoid Jug.

Most remarkable and interesting to me are the pots made by Thomas Commeraw, who was a Manhattan contemporary of Crolius and Remmey. The catalog includes several fine examples. There’s an ovoid jug with an especially nice form, swelling gracefully from a narrow base to a curved shoulder. It features a “heavily-tooled spout, decorated with an impressed and cobalt-highlighted drape-and-tassel motif resembling clamshells.” There’s a stoneware jar with an “impressed Federal Drape Design.” This does not have quite the swell that the jug has, but it does call out to a potter’s soul.

Commeraw’s work has been known and recognized for years, but he was incorrectly assumed to be of French descent. Poring over the census records, Brandt Zipp discovered that Commeraw was a free African American potter with a shop in Coerlears Hook on the Lower East Side from around 1796-1819. Commeraw has become a passion for Brandt Zipp. He has devoted himself to extensive research and now, for the past several years he has been writing a biography of him. Hurry, Mr. Zipp! I want to read it! Surely, once published, the book will give Commeraw his rightful place in not only ceramics history, but American history.

Covering Brandt’s research for the New York Times, Eve M. Kahn wrote in Oct. 13, 2011. “Mr. Zipp has uncovered details about Commeraw’s clients, including black church leaders and abolitionists, and tantalizing hints that the ceramist helped soldiers protect New York forts during the War of 1812. Around 1820, the American Colonization Society sent Commeraw to Sierra Leone to govern a new colony of free blacks. He sent back copious letters about conditions there.”

You can view all of the Crocker Farm catalogs online. If you are interested in early American ceramics, it is worth spending the time to view the catalogs and watch the videos. They are a treasure. Of particular interest are the videos in which Brandt Zipp talks about Commeraw. Plus, he has created a website dedicated to Commeraw. Crocker Farm’s next auction is in July, so we can look forward to that catalog (or bidding if one has the funds), while we await the biography of Thomas Commeraw.

A Book About Butter for Potters

At a recent show, a tall middle-aged man came into my booth and, picking up one of my dome covered Brie bakers asked, “Is this a Canadian butter dish?” I had no idea what he meant by a Canadian butter dish, but assured him that he could use it however he wished. He explained that in Canada, butter comes in round discs, not sticks as in the U.S.

In Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova, Khosrova tells us that during the Middle Ages and later, butter was often shaped into long tubes by the dairy maids who were responsible for butter making. Purchasers would bring a tube home, and slice it into rounds as needed. So, my Brie maker would have made a perfect butter dish not only for Canadians but also for fifteenth century peasants. The book is full of similar fascinating tidbits and facts. Though it is not specifically for potters – I exaggerated a bit in the title – if you are a potter interested in food and food history and the relationship of particular foods to pottery, it will be a fun read for you.

Khosrova, a former pastry chef at the Culinary Institute of America, takes us on a world tour as well as a historical tour. The first butter, she tells us, was made from the milk of sheep, yak and goats. To make butter, she explains, the milk, or if it has been separated, cream, is agitated until it thickens and clumps. She writes, “The Sumerians of 2500 B.C.E. used special terra cotta jugs for holding the milk and a plunger-type tool (called the dash or dasher in English) for churning.”

Early churns were made of animal skins.  Khosroba traveled to Bhutan and describes the making of Yak butter in similar leather bags. But, as with the Sumerians, pottery has always had a place in butter making. Pottery jugs and pancheons were also important. Pancheons, which are one of the most beautiful pottery shapes that I can think of, were large, wide mouthed pans, with flaring straight sides, used for settling the milk so that the cream could be skimmed off the top. Churns were commonly made of wood, but glazed stoneware churns kept the cream cooler than other materials, which helped with the process, and was cleaner.

Curiously, Khosrova does not discuss butter dishes, French, which preserve the butter’s freshness with a water seal, or the various lidded ceramic dishes popular today. She does, however, conclude her book with a wonderful collection of recipes for pastries and sauces, each of which cries out for a pretty handmade serving dish. Or so it seems to me.

Lovely New Editions of Two Leach Books

Unicorn Press has reissued the classic A Potter’s Book by Bernard Leach and his lesser-known travelogue, A Potter in Japan. Both have been newly typeset, printed on heavy, coated paper and bound in linen and paper over board, with satin ribbon bookmarks and gold stamping. Even if you already own copies, and think you have read each enough times, these editions are objects of beauty in their own right. They are worth having for the visual and tactile pleasures they offer, much like a good pot. They have a heft to them yet are a nice size for holding.

All the original drawings have been kept in A Potter’s Book. The publisher has found many color versions of the photos from the first edition. Where this was not possible, color photos of Leach’s pots have been used. In addition, other pertinent photos have been added “for clarity.” But don’t think this is a glossy coffee table version. This is a serious republication, done with respect.

A Potter in Japan has not been given color photos, but it is still a handsome book. Written during Leach’s sojourn in Japan 1953 -1954, it is a travel memoir filled with descriptions and impressions and most of all, opinions. During his stay, he makes many pots and pictures, holds exhibitions, gives talks, and, in addition to writing this book, works on another, all of which he discusses. The book has a feel of immediacy. Describing Hamada’s workshop after earthquake jolts and rain, he writes, “Yesterday about 1,000 pots were carried in and out, three times for sun and shower. Today the pots stayed out until 4 p.m., then the whole lot, 2,000, were carried on boards down the muddy slippery path to the smaller kiln beyond the lower house, 250 yards away, and massed around the long shed on the ground. After tea, the biscuit-firing kiln-packing was started and was nearly complete by supper time. Finished afterwards by candlelight and the fire started, I have never seen anything like it. Everybody, except Richard and I, knew their jobs and had a deft control of their bodies.”

I congratulate Unicorn Press. I wonder if they might consider giving Michael Cardew’s books the same lavish treatment?

Amanda Fielding on Gillian Lowndes

Gillian Lowndes by Amanda Fielding marks the ends of the lives of both women. Lowndes, the radical ceramic artist died from cancer at the age of 74 in 2010. Fielding, known for her work as a writer and critic, died, also from cancer, in 2012 after completing this, her last book at the age of 55. This illustrated volume from the Ruthin Craft Center is a fitting tribute to both women.

Lowndes, who trained as a potter, began her career making coiled pots and wall pieces. She was never interested in domestic ware however, and after an extended stay in Nigeria with her partner Ian Auld, she turned to bricolage. She gathered discarded materials: old bricks, nails, fiberglass tissue, and wire together with luffa, sometimes called the sponge gourd. These finds she subjected to the intense heat of her electric kiln (one wonders how the kiln elements withstood such rigors). The fiberglass tissue and luffa she coated with slip before firing. The other finds she fired on their own before adding to her ceramics. She was one of the first artists working in clay who glued parts together post-firing, rather than having her work emerge whole from the kiln.

Auld, her partner, amassed a large collection of primarily African objects. These pieces, woodcarvings, pottery jars, textiles, jewelry, filled their home and influenced the spirit of Lowndes’ work. She made a series of ‘hooks,” long pieces of slip-coated luffa, fired and wired together, and brick bags, with actual old-bricks fired into distortion. Throughout her career, she taught and exhibited, though critics were not always receptive to her innovations.

Except that her work centered on clay and her kiln, she had little in common with other ceramists. Still, she saw herself and her work, as being part of the ceramic milieu. “I’ve always been involved in the craft world rather than the art world because I work in ceramic,” she told Fielding. “because I put things in the kiln. I always felt I was in a strange area, not one or the other. I was always quite interested in making things in different materials, but because I was so involved with ceramics naturally my understanding of ceramic materials and what would fire in a kiln was something which drove my art more than anything else. And it happened that I cold get exhibited in craft galleries. I’ve never been a great self-promoter, so I didn’t go out and search for fine art galleries. I waited for things to come to me and just made the work.”

I would have liked more photos of Auld’s collection of pots, textiles and carvings because I love these objects, but of course that’s not what the book is about except as inspiration for Lowndes.  As readers know, I am a lover primarily of functional pots and not particularly drawn to Lowndes’ sort of work. But she led an interesting life, took risks in her art, was wiling to explore and experiment. She makes a good subject to read about, regardless of your ceramic bent. And there is something primal about her hooks that resonate, even with a stubborn vessel woman like me.

Walter Keeler

Walter Keeler set up his first pottery in 1965 and moved to his present workshop in 1976. Though he is adamant in calling himself a functional potter, influenced by historical European pottery, his teapots and jugs are unlike those of any other artist.  In Walter Keeler Emmanuel Cooper and Amanda Fielding look at Keeler’s life in clay, his ideas and growth, and, the pots themselves.

“All my pots are functional,” he explained to David Biers in a Ceramic Review interview quoted by Fielding. “”It is a fundamental justification and a challenging starting point. If the pots could not be used, I would rather not make them.”

Fielding notes that his Ideas on functionality are of interest. “The function of a pot, in a practical sense, is a very deep thing…because function goes beyond whether you can pick an object up by the handle or raise it to your mouth, it has other implications too,” Keeling explains. “In certain company you would not drink out of a mug, you’d drink out of something more refined…The fact that you can play with that, if you have a mind to – you encourage people to stick their little finger out – seems too rich and important…I think that if you work in the crafts, then somehow that’s where your heart should be.”

And, most tellingly, he explains, “If you make a very ordinary teapot, people will say, oh that’s just a teapot, and walk away, but if you make a teapot that poses questions – I’m a teapot, but what sort of teapot am I? Would you use me, how would you use me? – then people have to engage with that.”

Fielding describes his work as “mischievous, slightly subversive.” Cooper tells us that the shards he found as a boy first drew Keeling, like seemingly many UK potters, to pottery. He keeps his shard collection to this day. Inspired by metal cans and containers, Whieldon ware, Staffordshire creamware, and German salt-glazed pottery, Keeling works in both earthenware and stoneware. His pieces begin with thrown forms, which he reassembles, with carpenterly skill, adding extruded handles, generous pouring lips, and his signature sprig of concentric circles.

This is a thoughtful look at one of the more celebrated potters of our era and his personal philosophy of pot making. It is published by the Ruthin Craft Center. Sadly, we have lost both authors, thoughtful and important contributors to the ceramics literature. Happily. Keeling is still very much with us, and potting.

Michael Casson

“Function is the prime motivator for me as a vessel maker,” Michael Casson, known to everyone as Mick, explains in Michael Casson with essays by Emmanuel Cooper and Amanda Fielding. He was the quintessential functional potter, spending all his adult years making his own work, teaching, and leading the burgeoning community of potters in the UK. Born in 1925, he was initially attracted to pottery when he saw pots decorated by Picasso. With his brother, he took over a hardware store that his uncle had lost interest in running. His brother operated the hardware business while he ran the Marchmont Street Pottery. “ I couldn’t throw, couldn’t form a glaze and did not understand materials,” he told Cooper of the difficulties he faced.

In time, he and fellow potter and wife, Sheila Wilmott bought an old grocery store where they set up Prestwood Pottery. Here, they had the space they needed to do their work and raise a family. Their electric kiln was housed in a shed in the back yard. One night the shed caught fire and burned, not from the kiln, but from a box of ashes a “well meaning” friend had left for glazes. They built a new shed of bricks and continued to work.

Wanting the freedom to fire with fuel, without alarming their neighbors, in the seventies Mick and Sheila moved to rural Wobage Farm, where Sheila remains today. Here they could expand, fire with wood, and use salt. Sheila focused on the domestic ware, while Mick made larger, one off pieces. His favorite form was the jug. “There are robust jugs, refined jugs, humorous jugs and monumental jugs…” he explained. “A jug is essentially a Western vessel.  It’s about holding liquid, pouring liquid. It’s about picking it up and a jug’s got quite a few human attributes. You can talk about the belly of the pot, the shoulder, the foot, the lip. So the jug embodies all these human characteristics. I think it’s one of the most, for me, one of the most endearing forms that a potter has to make.”

Michael Casson is one of the larger, more ambitious books from the Ruthin Craft Center, generously illustrated with photos, many full page,  of Michael Casson’s pots, wonderful black and whites photos taken through the years, and in-depth text. I would love to have one of Casson’s jugs in my collection, but this book is the next best thing.

Books and Pots and Emmanuel Cooper

Amongst makers, potters, it seems to me, are the wordiest, giving us stacks of books. One of the most prolific and influential was Emmanuel Cooper, the late British potter and author. I have multiple well-read editions of his World History of Pottery, that in later editions became the more lavish 10,000 Years of Pottery. And what potter does not have a copy of one of his glaze books on their reference shelves? He also wrote two of the most important biographies of potters, Bernard Leach: Life and Work, and Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter as well as a number of shorter biographies. In 1970, he founded Ceramic Review, which he edited. Philip Hughes writes, “Ceramic Review was pivotal in Emmanuel’s life and in the evolution of British ceramics.” If he never touched clay himself, he would be lauded as a major influence on 20th &  21st century ceramics.

But he did touch clay. Throughout his life, he was a maker and it is his making that informed his writing. Emmanuel Cooper OBE 1938 – 2012, published in 2013 by the Ruthin Craft Centre to coincide with a touring exhibition of Cooper’s work, celebrates Cooper the potter with essays by Chris White, Sebastian Blackie, Jeremy James, Josie Walter, Alison Oddey, a forward by Julia Pitts and Philip Hughes, Colophon by Philip Hughes and an introduction by his longtime partner, David Horbury.

We learn that, unlike so many other potters in the UK, he was not intent on a rural life, and worked instead in an urban basement studio. Sebastian Blackie writes, “An interesting aspect of Cooper’s making environment that is not evidenced in the work is the relative chaos of his studio. Cooper’s writing required a very ordered mind so it is surprising to discover this side of his character…a cramped basement littered with precarious stacks of half finished pots and other ceramic detritus.”  His partner David Horbury in describing the three basement rooms where Cooper worked says, “All around on makeshift shelves were hundreds of glaze tests, their colour and textures obscured by dust and debris, and in every space there were pots – fired and un-fired – huge thrown porcelain bowls, jug forms of all sizes and variations, large platters and hand-built work and, in the darker furthest corners, the remains of his production ware – a relish tray, a bread crock, a stack of saucers.” The keeper of a “chaotic” studio myself, in the basement no less, though a walk out basement, I find Cooper’s messiness reassuring.

Potting in an urban studio, he did not have the old barns and sheds that his rural colleagues possessed, and with no place to house large wood burning kilns and stacks of wood, he embraced the electric kiln. His glazes are proof that good glazes can indeed come from an electric kiln.

Cooper was a production potter for his first twenty years, producing tableware and dishes, selling largely to restaurants.  This work informed his later individual pieces. Blackie writes, “Cooper’s individual pots, made in small batches, have an authority and clarity that is the product of years of repetition throwing. It is an apprenticeship few of today’s makers have benefited from. His work always remained domestic in scale and it is interesting that he continued to weigh his clay for all his pieces…”

Throughout his life, he made pots while he wrote and taught and conducted his thousands of glaze tests. The book is illustrated with black and white biographical photos, two-page close-up spreads of glazes, and color photos of the jugs and bowls that were the shapes that defined him.

Long an admirer of Cooper’s research and his books, I was grateful to discover some of the man and his pots here on the page. He deserves as fulsome a biography as he wrote of Lucie Rie, but for now, Emmanuel Cooper OBE 1938-2012 is a most welcome addition to ceramic literature.

David Frith and Margaret Frith Potters

It doesn’t get more pottery-romantic than David Frith, Margaret Frith: 50 Years of Brookhouse Pottery by Jane Wilkinson. Published in 2013 by the Ruthin Craft Centre in the UK but new to me, the book is a delight. I spent an hour happily turning the pages and poring over the photos, fantasizing, before actually reading a word.

The pots are luscious: David’s stoneware, Margaret’s porcelain, meticulously thrown and glazed, pick-me-up tactile, all evoking pot envy, or at least covetousness. David’s platters are large enough to hang on an exterior wall. Margaret’s teapot invites a brew of Earl Grey. We see jugs, bottles, large jars and a wonderful array of tea bowls expertly made and photographed.

And then there is the pottery itself. Who has not dreamed of restoring a quaint old stone mill by a riverside and making it one’s workplace? Brookhouse is what you imagine when you think of a country pottery. Margaret has planted abundant gardens. There are spacious outbuildings on both sides of the river, and an airy kiln shed that is beautiful. Paths. Bridges. Potted plants. Flowerbeds. Decks. Large windows. Did I say the kiln shed is beautiful?

But a place such as Brookhouse, and such great pots, do not just happen. They take imagination and years of hard work and dedication. David and Margaret Frith began working together more than fifty years ago, starting with a line of slipware. In 1975 they bought a semi-derelict 18th century woolen mill turned brewery called the Malt House and began arduous renovations, converting the property into a home and workshop. They renamed their picturesque North Wales haven Brookhouse Pottery. Here they have raised a family, made pots, entertained guests such as David Leach, Michael Cardew, and Mick Casson, hosted exhibitions and taught workshops. Their work continues today. The book is a nice look at the Friths lives and work together.

Edmund de Waal on Porcelain

Three hundred years ago the Jesuit priest Pére J’Entrecolles wrote letters to his superiors describing in rich detail the manufacture of porcelain. The Catholic priest had been sent to Jingdezhen to proselytize to the local residents of this bustling eighteenth century Chinese city. Many of his potential converts worked with porcelain. His reports described all aspects of porcelain production from digging the special materials to firing. At the time how to make porcelain was a mystery to potters at home. A few years ago, Edmund de Waal, the acclaimed British author and potter, who has had a long obsession with porcelain, “brought” Pére J’Entrecolles along as his initial guide on his pilgrimage to discover the roots of porcelain. He carried and consulted marked up copies of the letters during his trip to Jingdezhen. He tells the story of his search in The White Road: Journey Into an Obsession. “This journey, “ he says, “is a paying of dues to those that have gone before.”

His quest takes him to China, Germany, South Carolina, and through his own England. The book is peopled with fascinating characters. Even if you have read numerous accounts of the alchemist Johann Frederich Böttger and his keeper/overseer Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus and how, while desperately trying to make gold, they discovered the secret of porcelain, you will find de Waal’s chapters about them worth reading. In his mind he is there too, with them, trying to understand what they were thinking, feeling what they feel, and he brings the reader along.

I was fascinated with the chapters on William Cookworthy, the Devon pharmacist who also was obsessed with making porcelain, and who succeeded, only to be outwitted by Josiah Wedgewood. And then there is Thomas Griffiths who, after crossing the Atlantic,  travels hundreds of miles into the wilderness of the American south, suffering rain and cold, to obtain “white earth” from the Cherokees and ship it back to England. The Cherokees, it turns out, also valued the clay and preferred he not make holes in it.

De Waal nicely intersperses his personal artistic journey – youthful years making stoneware, his struggles with firing, and thoughts on his studio practice – throughout the narrative. The book is divided into cups so that you feel he is not only making a book but that he is making pots to coincide with each section. The cups symbolize the book. Or perhaps the book follows the cups.

“You drop the lid of the huge lidded jar you have finally made,” he writes, “and it becomes ‘Jar for a Branch’. And you move on.” He shares his philosophies.  “Sets are a way of controlling the world. If you need this mortal world to reflect another kind of order, then things must match.”

I was immersed from the first page of the book. I love history. I am  intrigued by descriptions of how other potters work. He gives us both. The book is episodic, often written in the first person, so you feel immediacy. Towards the end, while he is writing, he is also in the process of moving his studio to a new spacious location. He tells us what he is reading. What he is thinking. How he works. “I sit at my wheel,” he says. “It is low and I am tall. I hunch. There is a ziggurat of balls of porcelain clay to my left, a waiting pile of ware boards to my right, a small bucket of water, a sponge, a knife and a bamboo rib shaped like a hand axe in front of me.” He has a space upstairs where he writes. There are books. Oh dear! Is that jealousy I am feeling?

Two complaints: The book does not have an index. Yes, I am an index junky, but really a book with this much history, so many facts and locations, and such intriguing characters, should have an index. And though de Waal read deeply and did extensive research, the book has neither endnotes nor a bibliography. Instead, the reader is directed to his website, where indeed you can find all that you want to. Still, I found this annoying and hope that other publishers do not go this route in an effort to save money. I suspect these were publisher decisions and not de Waal’s, but who knows.

Wherever you are personally in the pottery world, and whether you admire de Waal’s installations or eschew them, you will want to read The White Road. It is an insightful and deep examination by an artist into his antecedents and the inspiration that sprung from them. The book is rich, multi-layered. Refreshingly, there is no art speak. Instead, it is a personal telling of well-researched history. It is an important book for the field, and the larger world.

Note: Edmund de Waal’s The Pot Book was released in paper late last year. I wrote about that in 2011 (Nov. 6) when it came out in hardcover.