The Kiln Book Revisited

It’s not an eBook yet. There isn’t a fancy edition for the iPad. But the brand new fourth edition of Frederick Olsen’s The Kiln Book is very fancy compared with the first hippie-homespun edition released in 1973. It’s been a decade since he last published a revision, so this new one is welcome indeed.

I still have my seventies copy, slightly tattered, read I don’t know how many times. My younger self believed that if I studied the sections on gas often enough, it would all become clear. In fact, my first burners were homemade from pipe iron. But even today, all these decades of firing with gas later, I do not retain a fraction of what Olsen knows and explains so patiently.

But it was the Tambo kiln and Bizen kiln and Kyoto kiln that most fascinated me in the early version, and I would pore over the drawings and not so sharp black and white photos (the book was emphatically not printed on glossy paper) for hours. Sometimes my heart literally raced looking at all the kilns, the updrafts, the downdrafts, the crossdrafts. I still like to look at kilns.

The new edition, like its more immediate predecessors, has a vertical aspect and coated paper. It is filled with Olsen’s famous charts of information and kiln drawings and color photos of various kilns around the world. Also fun, are the short pieces on his mentors, and glimpses of Olsen himself, as a young man in Japan, an older man in Japan, with other potters, under the beating sun working on a project.

Surely, there is no one, living or dead, who has understood pottery kilns so thoroughly. Usually we come to understand our own kiln but to be a maser of the intricacies and science of gas, and oil, and wood, and electricity is truly astonishing. Olsen is an expert on combustion, bricks, and refractories. He looks back, deep into kiln history and forward, always ready to experiment.

For all his visibility, we do not often see Olsen’s own work. There are not enough images of them here either, in the fourth edition of The Kiln Book, but thankfully there are a few of his bottles and whisky cups.

The Pot Book

Edmund de Waal describes his new book, (written with Claudia Clare) as a “visual anthology,” of ceramic pieces. Anthology is the perfect word for what he has done in The Pot Book. Arranged alphabetically (yes, alphabetically) by maker, school or style, the book is a sumptuous feast of more than 300 personally chosen works. It is not encyclopedic but it is wide-ranging and inclusive.

It makes for curious juxtapositions. In the letter G, we see a robust earthenware jar from the Gansu province of China, more than 4,000 years old, with a shamanic figure painted across the top portion, the head actually protruding just below the slightly flared mouth. On the facing page, we see a modeled head-vessel made by Paul Gauguin in the late nineteenth century. “In 1886, painter Paul Gauguin started decorating pots that were made for him by the French potter Ernest Chaplet,” de Waal tells us and goes on to explain that Gauguin turned away from Chaplet’s thrown wares, and began hand building pots himself.

Reading this, one is compelled to flip back in the alphabet and reread the page for Ernest Chaplet. His work, de Waal writes, “marks the start of a new epoch in pottery. It was made, decorated and fired by one man.” It was the beginning of studio pottery.

Each entry features a photo, which takes up three fourths of the page, a few well- researched and insightful paragraphs placing the work in context, dates, size, and de Waal’s suggestions for other entries that might also be of interest. To find out where the pieces are, you need to read the photo credits in the back of the book.

The book is beautifully produced, as Phaidon books are, and hefty. After my usual introductory glancing through, I intended to read it over the course of a few evenings by the fire, front to back in alphabetical order, as I supposed de Waal meant for it to be read. Instead, I found myself jumping ahead and turning back. It was like wandering through a vast museum with no particular intent except to absorb all the pots on display; letting the pots themselves, with the help of a thoughtful curator, lead the way. My second trip through was more orderly. I am sure I will be visiting The Pot Book often.

De Waal began his potting life very young, apprenticed with Geoffrey Whiting, studied in Japan and learned to quickly throw multiples. He set up shop and made traditional domestic ware, before finding his own voice in porcelain. In  1998 he wrote a controversial book ” demythologizing” Bernard Leach. His memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, published in 2010 and out now in paper, was an international bestseller and won the Costa Book Award and the Ondaatje Prize.

Note: For the second time in less than two months, we have lost electricity for close to a week due to storms. Makes me realize how dependent I have become on my computer and the Internet. And because I have to FTP these blogs, posting was impossible. The modern era! Thankfully, we had candles, books, and a warm fire.