Where The White Stuff Came From

In The Hare With Amber Eyes Edmund De Waal told the stories of his uncle’s netsuke, of his Ephrussi forebears and of his apprenticeship in pottery. Here, in The White Road, he continues the story of his life-long love of porcelain, the finest, most difficult and demanding of pottery bodies. He calls it “a pilgrimage of sorts”, a quest.  He gives us a history of porcelain from its origins in China; how and why emperors and traders prized it; how it came to Europe; and how, at long last in the 18th century potters in Germany, France and England worked out how to produce fine white porcelain. For De Waal its whiteness is its essence.  For him, as for the Chinese, whiteness is both beautiful and dangerous.

While in our culture white is bridal, virginal, the colour of innocence and simplicity, for Herman Melville in Moby Dick white was the colour of danger and for the Chinese it is the colour of loss, of mourning, a sign that the world should keep away. It is minatory, white. When the Emperor Zhu De built the great White Pagoda in the 15th century he ordered the execution of 2,800 women in his household (concubines and servants) after rumours of a plot.

De Waal travels to Jingdezhen to find the source of porcelain, a mountain outside the city called Kao-lin. He describes how it came to Europe, and follows its trail to Versailles and Meissen, telling the story of how the secrets of its ingredients (petunse) and the making of porcelain — both the theory (the young mathematician, Tschirnhaus) and the practice (the brilliant and tenacious Johann Friedrich Böttger) — were gradually discovered.

He relates how in Cornwall the non-conformist chemist William Cookworthy mastered its secrets, taking advantage of a rich local source of fine white clay. De Waal tells this rich and complex narrative well, and intercuts it with the story of his own life with porcelain. He writes about how working with clay feels on the hand, about the qualities of porcelain — “thin as paper, resonant as a musical stone”; about cobalt — “an exalted material”, “a blue as clean and lambent as midday”. 

He is good on the collective nature of making porcelain, how it goes through as many as 70 hands at the wheel, trimming pots, drying, glazing, packing pots into saggars, saggars into kilns: processes that haven’t changed in 300 years. In doing so he casts light on his own work, the sequences of his pots: “sets are a way of controlling the world,” to quote the 11th-century Zhou Ding. “The ten thousand things are produced and reproduced/so that variation and transformation have no end” — endless iteration. This leads him to interesting observations on copying, authenticity and frauds: “Copying is a valued pathway of respect, a way of learning skills.”

At times his writing sags under the weight of detail, and adjectives, but then he delights with such observations: the “softness of surface of a winter apple”. He brings the story of porcelain into the 20th century and tells how the Allach fact-ory produced porcelain figurines of SS troopers, much to the delight of Himmler, and how the Chinese made plaques of Mao in the Cultural Revolution. But he leaves you with the desire to go back and gaze at porcelain, and to look afresh at his own work. His pilgrimage ends with “white is a way of starting again — finding your way”. For those who love his pots The White Road’s closing sentence is optimistic: “ And I am making again.”

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