This is a slightly expanded and unedited version of my Listener review. That is, like I wrote it in the first place.
I wish Edmund de Waal’s new book, ‘The White Road: A pilgrimage of sorts’, did not feel like a response to a publisher’s plea for another bestseller covering historical research and journeys, as his generational family memoir, ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’, translated into 30 languages and given by everybody to everybody else for Christmas 2010, on the way earning him an OBE and several awards. It does. But does that mean it’s an unsatisfying book? Not at all. For ceramics aficionados and lovers of a winding narrative it is awesome, in every sense. This episodic recount of DeWaal’s search around the arcana and histories of porcelain joins some long-missed dots along the passages of history’s ‘white gold’. It’s an exhaustive traverse from kaolin mountains in China to porcelain rooms and alchemy in 18thC. Germany; to Britain’s Cornish moorland pockmarked by mineral digs (who’s watching Poldark?) and Stoke-on-Trent’s dark satanic mills peopled with working children. To Cherokee-owned deposits in Tennessee and what is one of the darkest moments of the 20thC – Dachau’s concentration camp where the Allach Porcelain Factory utilised prisoner labour to produce Nazi-approved statuary; where the whiteness and clarity of the clay symbolised Aryan purity.
De Waal’s protagonists are an intriguing lot. There was Pere d’Entrecolles, the French Jesuit sent to convert heathen Chinese in 1712 and who wrote accounts of the making of porcelain from the place it was first formulated. His writing has been of value for potters ever since and copies can still be found (the originals in French of course). Or the German intellectual, Tschirnhaus, whose precision straightened the muddled attempts of the scattered youth, Bottger, who was credited with Europe’s first manufacture and their despotic ruler, Augustus, Elector of Saxony and libertine who kept both men under restraint to service his collection obsession, gathering 35,798 pieces before he died. There was the earnest Quaker apothecary, William Cookworthy, who realised how porcelain might be produced in England’s west country only to be thwarted by the avuncular yet merciless Josiah Wedgewood with his interests staked in Stoke-on-Trent rather than the south. Cookworthy’s partner, Richard Champion who lies forever where he bartered with the Cherokee for their ‘unaker’ – white earth, and we learn that Himmler claimed Allach porcelain was “one of the few things that give me pleasure”.
This is no simple linear narrative, but a sprawling journey interspersed with personal accounts of De Waal’s shifting studios, and preparations for his own porcelain rooms in grand venues like London’s Geffrye Museum and the V&A, or the Gagosian dealership in New York, alongside his transition from potter to installer of many bits of porcelain. There are so many multi-layered, interwoven stories that at times he seems uncertain about which tense to write in. His enjoyment, apparent in all his writing, of obscure words, in this case such as congeries (mass/heap), gelid (cold/frosty), mazy (cannot find – anyone help?), or jeremiad (complaint/lamentation), shines through the lyrical artiness of his writing style. Nevertheless, this sometimes irritatingly fragmented scrapbook, laced with digressions, is also bearer of some superbly evocative phrases, “the sad smudge of smoke” (from a dying kiln), “cobalt allows the world to be turned into stories” (marvellous and how very true…) and, “Porcelain consumes hills, the wood on the hills, it silts the rivers and clogs the harbours, enters the deltas of your lungs.” And more ways of describing white than any reader could imagine.
Absolutely worth a read in my view if you have any interest in the history of porcelain. While many in ceramics will know bits and pieces of this series of tales, or even large chunks of it, The White Road describes it all in roughly chronological order although most is layered in the 1700s where the majority of significant events happened. De Waal has made the history of the research and hard graft that went into producing a European version of ‘white gold’ a much more engaging narrative than does the author of The Arcanum, Janet Gleeson, as far as I know the only other account of this development in early 18thC Germany. Her version is fuller and more worthy but less interestingly written. I am sure it could be ordered from The Ceramics Library which specialises in those out-of-print ceramics books.
In contrast, here is another review of The White Road taken from Private Eye and sent to me from England. It’s an ‘ouch’ kind of review as rather than content, on which I mainly concentrated my allowed 500 words, it focuses upon De Waal’s meditative, digressive style where he pauses narrative to examine words and thoughts that arise. Style is a very personal thing. This piece really mocks De Waals’ cleverly and it must have struck bone. It’s also funny and you need to read the book to know how funny. However there is the point that if ceramics is now subject (or butt for that matter) of nationally read satire, it must have made a dent or three somewhere. For, when you think about it, if writing on ceramics had been knocked like this, even five years ago, folk would have wondered what the hell this was all about. Or it would be profoundly ignored. So now, thanks to De Waal, Ai Weiwei, Grayson Perry and the Great British Pottery Throwdown et al, readers and viewers have a much better idea about what ceramics, pottery and the joys of the hand-made are all about.