The White Road
Edmund de Waal
Chatto & Windus
In 1940, Bernard Leach, the founding father of modern British ceramics, published A Potter’s Book. It is the classic primer for anyone interested in hand-thrown pottery, a unique art in which function meets beauty. In it, he states: “In order to familiarise oneself with what must be considered the ultimate refinement of pottery, one must go back to the early porcelains and examine the Ting and Ying Ch’ing wares of the T’ang and Sung Dynasties. Here we find all the purity and strength of an inception. In later centuries command of material and range of expression increased, but never again did Chinese porcelain exhibit such noble simplicity of treatment, such fullness and clarity of form . . .”
Leach travelled extensively through China and Japan in the early years of the 20th century, bringing to the West some understanding of the subtle artistry of eastern potters. When he writes of purity, simplicity of treatment and clarity of form, he may well be describing the genius of the contemporary British potter, Edmund de Waal, who perfected his artistic vision through studying in Japan.
Although he has become famous as the author of a remarkable family memoir, The Hare With Amber Eyes (2010), de Waal was already well known as a potter and creator of dramatic installations, such as Tristia (2007), consisting of low dishes, almost jars, suspended between blocks of white plaster, and the astonishing Signs and Wonders, devised for the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2009 to celebrate the ceramic galleries. Each of de Waal’s 425 distinctive pieces, vessels and plates, made for that installation, is arranged in the small clusters of groups and sequences that he favours. It is a marvellous sight; simplicity and sophistication in harmony.
Despite the success of The Hare with Amber Eyes – and indeed, before that, he had written a somewhat critical monograph, Bernard Leach (1998), for the Tate – de Waal is by instinct an artist; most of all, he is a working potter, crouched over a wheel, more like a spinning table. His pieces, one of which I am looking at as I write, are witnesses to memory and to the allure of what is a supreme act: that of making something, a shape that is inanimate and yet responsive and useful.
His new book, The White Road, may be received as a specialist work, in that it traces the evolution of porcelain juxtaposed with de Waal’s personal progression from earthenware to the more complex and capricious medium of white porcelain. Yet it is far more than that: it is a meditation on beauty and obsession.
Admittedly, a historian could have written it, as indeed historians have chronicled the violent history of silk manufacture and of the tulip frenzy which, shrouded in intrigue, often included murder in medieval Europe, as well as of the organised theft of wild orchids and the vicious mining of diamonds. But the difference is that de Waal is an artist, who works in porcelain clay – a tactile wonder in itself to even hold – and admits freely to being obsessed with a substance that is “made of a certain juice which coalesces underground and is brought from the East” (as an Italian astrologer decided in the mid 16th century).
Porcelain was first made in China 1,000 years ago, and was traded for almost as long as eager Europeans attempted to crack the mystery or contented themselves with merely importing the coveted pots and bowls. The Victoria and Albert Museum has the finest ceramic collection in the world, and the British Museum also has many splendid pieces. As a former potter, I would say anyone interested in pottery will value this book. Readers who enjoy a hint of the eccentric and share a magpie’s delight in connecting clues will also be entranced.
It may not have the popular appeal of the very English de Waal’s gorgeous account of how an earlier Jewish European branch of his family had moved from Odessa to the grandeur of imperial Vienna and on to wartime extermination, their fate reflected in the odyssey of a set of netsuke – 264 Japanese wood-and-ivory carvings – that moved through space, time and history, yet The White Road is a vividly felt narrative. De Waal, blessed with curiosity, tenacity and passion, knows how to tell a story by sifting through the many pieces as well as by playing with time and random thoughts.
Just as a potter marshals the material from which a piece will emerge, de Waal assembles his account based on his travels, personal memoir, anecdote, extensive research and the ability to see connections and note parallels. He summons the people, not only the emperors and madmen who lusted after works of translucent perfection, but the exploited men, women and children who laboured for pittances to create them and had to pay for all breakages.
The journey begins in Jingdezhen, “the city of porcelain”, in China, a place “like one furnace with many vent holes of flame”. De Waal went there because it had been the destination for countless emissaries dispatched by emperors demanding “impossibly deep porcelain basins for carp for a palace, stem cups for rituals, tens of thousands of bowls for their households”.
Most dramatic of all, though, is his observation that Jingdezhen, with all its secrets, has provided a backdrop to 50 generations of “digging and cleaning and mixing white earth, making and knowing porcelain, full of workshops, potters, glazers and decorators, merchants, hustlers and spies”.
How does it begin? Porcelain is composed of two varieties of mineral: first, there is petunse, or porcelain stone, the flesh; second is kaolin, or porcelain clay, the bones, which confer strength. Petunse and kaolin fuse at about 1,300 degrees to create a form of glass that is vitrified. In addition to the porcelain, there is cobalt, a dazzling pigment which is also toxic. Celadon adds mystique and colour.
De Waal drew his initial insights from observations made by a 17th-century Jesuit monk, Père d’Entrecolles, who had been sent to China. De Waal stands in vast heaps of discarded shards, the remains of centuries of broken pots. His mind is racing, yet even his excitement is at times overwhelmed by the cruelty of the men, such as Zhu De, the Yongle emperor, or Augustus the Strong, elector of Saxony, who sought porcelain above all else.
China to Dresden
The trail leads de Waal from China to Dresden via Versailles. Louis XIV loved porcelain and ordered the construction of a porcelain pagoda that wasn’t porcelain at all. But in Dresden progress was made, and by 1708, after 20 years of effort, the German mathematician Tschirnhaus had eased a young semi-imprisoned alchemist named Böttger into making a cup of “true unglazed porcelain”, Tschirnhaus died two days later, aged 57. Dresden would become the centre of the Meissen manufacturing empire, though the fussy German ceramic, for all its technique and opulence, lacks the simple grace of the Chinese masters.
From Dresden, the narrative moves to 18th-century England and a Quaker chemist, William Cookworthy. Trips are made to the New World and Indian braves are asked to share their reserves of kaolin clay. De Waal considers the pragmatic work practices of the canny Josiah Wedgworth and is shocked to discover that porcelain was made by prisoners in the Allach porcelain factory in Dachau by order of Heinrich Himmler.
History, science and art dominate the story, as do obsessive personalities and the ways in which dreams become a reality tainted by the suffering of the workers. Art as a commodity undercuts the narrative, as does passion and how it can become obsession. (At his death, Augustus the Strong possessed 35,798 pieces. He would never have had time to look at all of them.)
A single porcelain pot is sufficiently beautiful to behold, as is this dramatic, gloriously theatrical and irresistibly passionate pilgrimage into a dark hall of mirrors.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent
B-. Pours a clear copper color with white head. Not a whole lot of flavor, but light and refreshing
really depends on the price point of this one. got it with a pack of pick 6. Its a very basic ale. really doesn’t even taste like an amber to me, more like very simple adjunct stuff. It supposedly goes to a good cause, and the bottle looks dope. Ill up the rating on this if i find out you can get it for cheap, but for now its not all that great. drinkable but nothing special.
12oz bottle to tulip. Pours clear amber, white ring head. Aroma of bread, toffee roasted malts. Taste of same. Smooth. Slight hop citrus bitter on back.
From bottle at Minneapolis Marriott City Center. Unfortunately served very cold (kept in ice). Aroma just some malt. Body medium. Taste relatively medium sweet, with low bitterness.
Bottle. Sour milk, toffee malt, and straw aroma. Golden yellow with large off-white head. Mildly sweet buttery toffee malt and mildly bitter straw flavor. Good body. Pretty good.
This actually isn’t too bad. Not much there in the aroma department. Appearance has a long lasting thick head. Flavor’s the highlight with a nice, slightly toasty malt, a bit sweet, toffee, caramel, just enough bitter and tang to balance. Very drinkable. Pleasant finish.
12 Fl. Oz. Bottle. Poured clear, amber, nice off white head but no real lacing. Aroma of malts, caramel and some citrus notes. Taste is sweet and malty, some grain notes and some spices. Not bad, but certainly not great.
12 oz. bottle from my long lost cousin in Rochester, MN. Pours a light amber brown color with decent off-white head. Aroma is bread, nuts, and roasted grains, Taste is slightly sweet with some bittterness in the finish. Body is light to medium with a smooth mouthfeel and not too much carbonation. Exactly what I was hoping to find: something pleasant and sessionable with enough character to keep things interesting,
I’ve always enjoyed these when I’ve had them. Not something I search out but a solid easy drinker and profits go to a good cause. Null
Dark gold. Light head quickly receding. Aroma of dry caramel malt and citrus,lemon maybe orange or slight grapefruit. Taste is mild dry light caramel, tart lemon/ slight ornage, citrus bite. Bitter rhind finish. clean light dry. Not bad. Mild style but pretty spot on irish amber. Has a bit of bile rancid taste at times as it warms old hops? from the yeast?.