Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

A Holy Grail: Edmund de Waal’s Pilgrimage in Porcelain

The White Road: Journey into an Obsession by Edmund de Waal

Edmund de Waal, breathturn I, 2013. Detail. © Gagosian/Mike Bruce
Edmund de Waal, breathturn I, 2013. Detail. © Gagosian/Mike Bruce

In the preface to The White Road: Journey of an Obsession, Edmund de Waal quotes Melville’s famous phrase from Moby Dick, “What is this thing of whiteness?” This connection to Captain Ahab’s literal and symbolic quest for a white whale is apt, for in his ambitious new book, de Waal sets out to track the origins of porcelain production, traveling to China, then Dresden and finally his homeland, England. We follow him up and down literal hills of porcelain mining and production to seek the origins of three talismanic objects: the famed Monk’s Cap Ewer, said to be the first porcelain object made in China; the Tschirnhaus cup, the first piece made in the West; and the William Cookworthy tankard, the first true porcelain made in England.

These three works become de Waal’s Holy Grail and it is no surprise that in the preface he declares himself a pilgrim—although certainly no novice. His writings on ceramics are well known and he is the author of the Hare with Amber Eyes, the best-selling book that also pursued the complex stories that lie behind certain objects, in that instance his family’s collection of Japanese Netsuke. De Waal is a leading British ceramicist whose works in porcelain have been shown internationally. In the course of his global search for information about porcelain, de Waal speculates about on his own love of white clay, with flash backs to his beginnings as a potter and musings on a life spent hands deep in porcelain’s magical whiteness. Stories of great collectors, connoisseurs, inventors and clay entrepreneurs fascinate de Waal because on some level they are stories of fellow obsessives. He recounts their tales with refreshing directness, often with a humorous bent, bringing them to life on the page as idiosyncratic humans as well as historic figures.

With so much historical material from which to construct his narrative, there are times when his book begins to feel as encyclopedic and sprawling as Moby Dick, but it is spared the tragic mania of Ahab for at every turn de Waal delights in the information he is gathering. He remains an enthusiastic explorer even when the wealth and complexity of the subject threaten to overwhelm him.

Potter in Jingdezhen, 1920 © National Geographic/Frank B. Lenz
Potter in Jingdezhen, 1920 © National Geographic/Frank B. Lenz

We commence in Jingdezhen province, China where over 1,000 years ago, ceramic production began. Here de Waal climbs his first hill, Mt. Kao-ling, the “High Ridge” where kaolin was mined for imperial kilns. Two minerals are necessary to porcelain: petunse, known as porcelain stone, supplies the translucency and hardness of the clay body while kaolin, or porcelain clay, is critical for plasticity. As de Waal records, wherever there is porcelain there is first the twin search for these elements, then a period of experimentation, trial and much error. Petunse is not hard to find, but kaolin is. By 1585, the hillsides of Mt. Kao-ling were latticed with mines pulling up the valuable mineral. Such was the Chinese love of porcelain that as early as 1554, the Jiajing Emperor could send an orders to the imperial kilns for 26,350 bowls with dragons on them in blue, 30,500 places of the same design, 6,900 cups and more.

De Waal’s second hill, as he calls it, is his journey to Dresden, where the “Tschirnhaus cup” was made for the Elector of Saxony, Augustus the Strong, through the combined efforts of mathematician and philosopher Ehrenfried Walther von  Tschirnhaus and an inventor named Bottgen. It was a modest production in comparison with Chinese porcelains. But as de Waal sets out to illustrate by weaving together the stories of these men with Augustus II, who became elector in 1694, this object represents the origin of Meissen porcelain. De Waal has fun connecting the development of the West’s first porcelain to the appetites of a powerful ruler who, in his own words, suffered from “la maladie de porcelain, die Porzellenkrankheit.” Augustus inherited a royal collection of around 15 items but by the time of his death had collected 35,798 pieces.

The third journey delves the complex story of the birth of English porcelain. Here de Waal seeks the completion of his Holy Grail by tracking down the origin of a tankard made by William Cookworthy, dated March 14, 1768. In this section, many stories collide and interweave, including early colonial American history, for some of the first white clay in England was imported from Appalachia where the Cherokee had located and mined white clay that they used for making pipes. The indefatigable de Waal tracks down the various overlapping endeavors of merchants and clay entrepreneurs, including Josiah Wedgewood whose creamware production in Stoke-on Trent would become Britain’s most famous ceramic industry.

Meissen porcelain cup, c.1715 © Edmund de Waal/Ian Skelton
Meissen porcelain cup, c.1715 © Edmund de Waal/Ian Skelton

Keeping track of these journeys can be challenging, but whenever de Waal dwells on particular pieces of porcelain, his writing soars. At one point, for instance, he discusses the differences between Japanese and Chinese porcelain, focusing on the tradition of Kakiemon ware. Here his in-depth knowledge of porcelain and sensitive looking results in a stunning passage. He writes: “The colors of Kakiemon are dense and rich and clearly delineated with the blue of the night sky, carmine reds, yolky yellows and a purple that is used for painting peonies and actually has the velvet bruise of a peony.”

While some might be content with this physical description, de Waal extends his looking by considering the significance of the motifs. “The images are much closer to the dynamic spaces of an ink painting of a landscape than you would expect in a pot.” He then connects this type of surface decoration with story. “There is no attempt to tidy it up or repeat bits of decoration to set up rhythms. It is image, a story, and it is emptiness.” Finally, he concludes the passage with the personal declaration: “This is what makes this kind of porcelain so irresistible. The quail at the scattering of millet is focus and greed and not-being-clever and everyone gets that. And come to think of it, the phoenix is just a courtesan being oh so special off and about.” (p.152)

Moments like these take us back to the personable, curious first-person narrator of Hare with Amber Eyes interrogating history with a lively fresh perspective. In many ways, this is de Waal at his best, evoking the voice of the personal essayist, what Montaigne, father of the genre, called the “accidental philosopher.” A good essayist must believe as Montaigne asserted that “every man has in himself the entire human condition.” It is this belief that allows a writer like de Waal to take us on his long seemingly esoteric quest and trust that he will find communion with his readers, making his tale our own.

Edmund De Waal. The White Road: Journey into an Obsession. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). ISBN 978 0 374 28926 3, 417pp, $27