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.

Tang Ceramics at the Bottom of the Ocean

In 1998 two sea cucumber divers came upon a thousand year old shipwreck at the bottom of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Belitung Island, Indonesia. It turned out to be a remarkable find.

In his new book, The Lost Dhow: A Discovery from the Maritime Silk Route, that coincides with an exhibit of the same name at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Simon Worrall tells us that the cargo included “1,400 storage jars of various sizes, 1,600 ewers, and 800 ink pots. The serial nature of the cargo and the geographic diversity of its production (from five different kilns all over China) strongly suggest that these were export items made to order. The presence of 55,000 Changsha bowls, named after the kilns in Hunan Province where they were produced, tore up the history books, setting back by almost 800 years the date for the beginning of what we today call mass production.”


The ceramics in the top layer were encrusted with barnacles, coral and oyster shells, but the silt covering the lower layers preserved the rest of the pots so they are as pristine as if they had been made yesterday. Smaller wares, such the Changsha bowls were packed inside large jars, thus offering even more protection.

There were ewers, bowls, and jars splashed with the bright green of copper oxide that Tang potters so loved. One spectacular ewer, pictured on the cover, was stolen by fishermen during the salvage operation – thefts were apparently an ongoing threat during the excavation – and buried in sand. Fortunately, it was recovered intact. There are also delicate celadons and pearly white Yue ware and a few early cobalt blue and white pieces. One particularly delightful piece is a grater shaped like a fish complete with a hole in the tail for hanging. Something to try making perhaps? Interestingly, decorations on the pots vary, seemingly with the intent to satisfy the tastes of different markets.

Archaeologists have determined that the ship was of Arabic origin, from the Abbasid Empire (820 CE), while most of the cargo was from the Tang Empire thus pushing the timeline back for such global trade between two great powers. There were also remarkable pieces of gold and silver, mirrors and spices.

More than 70,000 artifacts were recovered with only 300 on exhibit at the Aga Khan. Still, it seems worth a trip to Toronto if one can manage it. If not, the book is a little treasure with excellent photos and a map and crisp, informative text.

The Porcelain Thief

In 1938, when the Japanese invaded China and drew close to Huan Hsu’s great-great- grandfather Liu’s estate, Liu dug a deep pit a short distance from his house, lined it with bamboo shelves, and buried his treasured collection of imperial porcelain. The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China is Huan Hsu’s account of his incredible search for those lost pots.

Hsu was born in the US. Growing up, he did everything a boy could to distance himself from his heritage, wanting to be American.  Then, as a young man, in order to look for the porcelain, he moves to China to work for his uncle, learns Chinese, and reunites with relatives he barely knows. His descriptions of modern day China are fascinating. If you do not live in China, you might experience a bit of culture shock just reading them. When Hsu commissions a suit, it is badly made and doesn’t fit. When he asks to have the suit he brought with him copied, the copy is perfect. He is astonished to see people wearing their pajamas in public. There are seemingly no rules, except to stay out of politics. Hsu’s observations are at times funny and always interesting.

But of course, it is the quest for the porcelain that intrigues us, and in this Hsu does not disappoint. Over time, he learns about the history of porcelain and the role it has played in China. He comes to understand that men of means, such as his great-great-grandfather took enormous pride in their collections. And he discovers that for the imperial court, porcelain and status were one. “In dynastic China,” he writes, “ownership of the imperial porcelain collection had conferred the right to rule, and so long as it remained in Taipei, Chiang’s government could claim that it, not Beijing, was China’s capital.”

During Hsu’s search for his great-great-grandfather’s collection, he sees that in the regions where pottery was made, there are crumbling and overgrown remains of numerous ancient kilns and thousands, millions of shards. The kilns, he laments, China’s heritage, are being destroyed, lost forever, as the country modernizes.

He becomes a shard hunter. “Opposite the mud hut were undulating mounds of shards so large that it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the scale,” he tells us, “The piles closest to the house had crevasses deep enough that people disappeared when they descended into them. Elsewhere swaths of vines, sesame blossoms, wildflower and small trees had taken root.”

Toward the end of his journey, he visits an elderly man whose ancestors travelled in the same social circle as his great-great-grandfather. The man lives in “a gloomy Communist era apartment.” Two boxes of ceramics are carefully carried out to the kitchen table for Hsu to see. Everyone is nervous, as if the pots might be dropped, or stolen. “I turned the vases over to see that both bore the mark of Guangzu, the second-to-last emperor of the Qing dynasty, though the blue one’s was pierced through and the red one’s was rubbed away; effacing the seal was a common practice when the emperor gave imperial wares as gifts. These were real imperial porcelains, not in a museum, an auction house, or wealthy collector’s home. They had remained in China for their entire existence, no more than a hundred miles form their birthplace, and had somehow managed to survive a century in which everyone, Chines or otherwise, seemed intent on removing them or destroying them.”

I will not tell you what happens when Hsu finally comes to dig where his great-great-grandfather lived. You must read the story for yourself. The Porcelain Thief is part memoir, part history, and part travelogue, all of it riveting. It will be published in March. Watch for it. Better yet, ask you local independent bookseller or librarian to hold a copy for you.

The Story of Chigusa

I was very intrigued when I first learned of the book Chigusa and the Art of Tea edited by Louise Allison Cort and Andrew M. Watsky as I am myself, off and on, working on a biography of a pot. It turns out this book is quite different from my project (whew!), but it is indeed the biography of a pot. I found it fascinating.

The pot, a stoneware storage jar with four lugs placed just below the neck, has a name: Chigusa. Made by potters in southern China during the Sung or Yuan Dynasties (mid 13th – mid 14th centuries), it measures 41.6 centimeters (16.37 inches) high and holds 25 liters (6.6 gallons). The lower portion was made by coiling and throwing. The upper portion was paddled. A lovely brown glaze of wood ash and iron-bearing clay covers 80 percent of the exterior. It was standard workshop fare.

“The process that produced the jar,” Court writes, “resulted from well-honed efforts to make a usable product quickly and efficiently. In local markets the chief concerns were intact condition and price. By chance, however, the jar that became Chigusa was selected to be shipped to Japan.”

In Japan, the jar became a revered and highly collectible object for the tea ceremony and was used to hold tea leaves.  It had a succession of owners each of whom honored the pot with accessories including a silk mouth cover, three boxes, one inside the other, to hold it, cords and documents.

During the sixteenth century, tea men, often rich merchants, kept “tea diaries” and Chigusa is mentioned or described in a number of these. In one such account, written in 1587, Kamiya Sötan writes, after describing may other objects and implements used in the ceremony he attended that day, “The tsubo Chigusa: the clay is coarse and red, the lower part swells, on the bottom are blisters…The glaze is thick, and there are many downward flows. Below that, the glaze appears to divide.”

The custom of naming revered objects was common in Japan from ancient times but in the 16th century, when Chigusa became known as Chigusa it was rare to name a tea object. Watsky speculates that the name was inspired by poetry, as “chigusa appears as a nature image in five poems.” There were, we are told, 21 other jars with names.

Chigusa stayed within a few families– the Hisada, Omotensnke, and Fujita, for generations. The book traces the jar’s whereabouts and values. In 1929 the Fujitas sold it at auction for what would have been $1000.00, a surprisingly low price. There followed a series of owners including, in the eighties, the owner of an IT company who paid the equivalent of $1.5 million dollars. “Then, on the morning of September 17, 2009, the Freer Gallery of Art placed the winning bid of $662,500 for the jar at Christie’s New York sale of Japanese and Korean Art. That would be the last stop on the jar’s long journey from southern China.”

I am giving only the briefest outline here. There is much about the tea ceremony itself, and, through the jar, the history of tea in Japan. But most of all, Chigusa is a delightful biography of a seven hundred year old stoneware storage jar.

The Chinese Scholar and Oyster Jars and Such

He sits alone in the wilderness, surrounded by rock outcroppings and bushes. He is dressed in a loose fitting robe. He is the Chinese Scholar, widely depicted by English potters on blue and white tin-glazed earthenware during the last quarter of the seventeenth century. He was inspired by images on expensive porcelain imported from China and Japan and transformed into something quite different.

The new edition of Ceramics in America edited by Robert Hunter, opens with a wonderful essay by Sarah Fayan Scarlett on the Chinese Scholar pattern, tracing the various cultural filters that affected this interpretation of life in distant China before the image reached England and became a staple exotic of the ceramic export business to the Americas. She suggests that the original Chinese Scholar may have been the eighth century poet Wang Wei “whose most famous verse reads, ‘ I walk to the place where the water ends/ and sit and watch the time when clouds rise.’” I love reading this kind of ceramic history. Knowing these stories adds so much to the experience of looking at one of these antique dishes.

Another wonderful essay, this one by Ivor Noël Hume describes the detective work he and others did to discover the makers and use for a strange, brown stoneware jar found in the mud surrounding an old Dutch fort in Guyana. It turns out the mystery jar was for storing pickled oysters and made in the first years of the nineteenth century by a black potter who was a freeman in New York city for an oyster dealer, also a black freeman in New York City. As he did his research, he came upon other examples of these straight-sided, salt-glazed “cap-hole” jars for the same enterprise. So in a few short, well illustrated pages, we have African American history, early American history, a look at international trade, a mystery, and best of all, a little known ceramic form.

There’s a wonderful section on “The Stoneware Years of the Thompson Potters of Morgantown, West Virginia, 1854-1890.” The photos of the Thompson ribs, coggles, stamps and master stamp molds are worth the price of the book. We read about a “Whately Teapot in the Western Catskills,” “A Seventeenth Century West Virginia Indian Basket Rendered in Clay,” “Planting Pots from Gore Place, Waltham, Massachusetts,” and an “Unusual Drabware Strainer.”

Included with this collection of essays about archaeological and historical research on ceramics in America, is a major essay by critic Garth Clark on Ai Weiwie. Call me provincial, but I am not agog over Weiwei’s art. I actually thought the Sunflower Seeds installation was a fiasco when the 100 million porcelain seeds began exploding oxide dust.  However, he is internationally revered as a visionary, a human rights activist, an architect, a competitive cook, a hairdresser, and a great artist. His blog rants were published in April to great acclaim. So I was glad to read the assessment of so well informed a critic as Garth Clark who is also known for championing risk in ceramics. Clark’s title sums it up: “Mind Mud: Ai Weiwei’s Conceptual Ceramics”. I did come to a better understanding and appreciation of Weiwei, though I am still not agog. Informed, cautiously appreciative, but no, not agog.

The Chipstone Foundation, which publishes Ceramics in America, considers it a journal. I suppose it is, as it comes out annually. But it is deservedly dressed as an art book. This year’s edition is hardcover with a dust jacket and a bound-in satin ribbon to mark your place. Lovely. Put it on your wish list. It would look oh so nice wrapped in tissue and tied with a satin bow, coordinated, of course, with the ribbon in the book.

A Fresh Look at Chinese Ceramic History

Two years ago scientists examined fragments of coarse gray pinch pots found by archaeologists in Yuchanyan, China and discovered that they dated back to at least 12000 BCE; the Paleolithic Era. This startling finding made headlines around the world. Along with the pots, there were rice hulls at the site. So we now know that pots were made and used for food and that some form agriculture was practiced at an earlier date than was previously believed. Potters in China, blessed with good clays, have continued to make ceramics up to the present.

Fourteen thousand years of pottery making! Without interruption!

There have been enough books and papers written on Chinese ceramics in English, French, Chinese, German and other languages, that the plethora of volumes could fill the shelves of a good-sized library. Do we really need one more? Have we not all read about the enormous dragon kilns? About porcelains and luminous celadons? You know, I am a history nut and can always read a bit more on the topic, but after picking up Chinese Ceramics: From the Paleolithic Period to the Qing Dynasty, I say, emphatically, yes, anyone interested in ceramics needs this addition to the reading table.

Chinese Ceramics is a joint project of the China International Publishing Group and Yale University Press and brings together the top scholars from both countries.

This is a very big book. It is meant to be read sitting up in a chair, maybe with some paper for notes, or ribbons to mark pages, but please, clean hands and no clay on your jeans. There are lots of drawings and photos with a deliberate attempt to include lesser-known works along with images of the most famous pieces we are all at least vicariously familiar with. So, yes, there are three-color Tang Dynasty horses and (my favorite) camels, but also works you have likely not seen. I had to chuckle at the “earliest known example of advertising on ceramics,” a lovely white porcelain vase (also from the Tang Dynasty) with a “foliate mouth” and the inscription, “Vases made by Ding Daogang are superb.” Well, if this vase is a representative example, I agree, vases by Ding Daogang are indeed superb. Inspired (which is what this book does to you, it inspires), I might try a foliate mouth myself but doubt mine will come out quite so nice and plump.

The editors, Li Zhiyan, Virginia A. Bowers, and He Li, have organized the book chronologically, ending with the early twentieth century. The various contributors focus on six themes; “continuity, national or ethnic character, geography, periodization, synthesis and dissemination.” There is also a look at authenticity (oh the forgeries, some of them antiquities themselves). They incorporate the latest research and findings; cargo from the Belitung and the Sinan shipwrecks; the discovery of the Ming Imperial Kiln; and hitherto little known collections. They seek to understand the ceramic industry and the culture in which it thrived, especially how the wares were made and how they were used. Chinese pottery was shipped vast distances and influenced ceramics wherever it was sold. And Chinese potters absorbed ideas from elsewhere and made them their own. At almost seven hundred pages, there is a lot here.

The contributors have spent ten years on Chinese Ceramics. We readers and potters are the beneficiaries. So I thank them. This is one book I expect to turn to again and again over the years.

And now, I will try that foliated mouth.