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.

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