Ever since reading Edmund de Waal’s The White Road: A Pilgrimage of Sorts I’ve been holding up all the pottery and crockery in my house to the light to examine whether it’s made of porcelain, how white/translucent it is, and turning it over to know what its provenance is.
I picked up this book because of its title thinking it yet another commentary on the very fierce race debate of the moment but discovered an entirely different preoccupation. This is an unusual quest of a book made by a potter who has become something of a superstar artist constructing large pottery exhibitions/installations in some of the world’s most renowned galleries. It’s also the second of De Waal’s book dealing with pottery: the first was The Hare with Amber Eyes, for which he won the Ondaatje Prize (among others). Hare tells the story of 264 netsuke hidden in a mattress during the Second World War and so not seized by the Nazis and which then landed up in the hands of an uncle who De Waal lunched with weekly.
The White Road is about porcelain, an extraordinary material and one which provoked a race to find the secret to its whiteness and hardness. As De Waal explains the Chinese had and used the secret for nearly a thousand before any one else discovered what it was: a mixture of porcelain stone (petuntse) and kaolin heated to very high temperatures in a reliable kiln. Production was centred on the city of Jingdezhen and was fuelled by European desire for porcelain for many centuries. Because he works with and reveres the medium himself, he sets out to visit the source of porcelain in China and then to understand how it began to be made in Dresden and Plymouth; how the code was cracked and who did it.
The intention at the beginning is to visit three mountains, three sources (Jingdezhen in the 17th century with an outpost of Jesuits observing closely the making of “China”, Dresden driven by a greedy German king and enlightenment scientists, Plymouth in the 19th century where Quakers are experimenting with materials and temperatures and which involves a battle with the very famous Mr Wedgewood and his business). But then things get messy and De Waal has to detour via Versailles (to get a sense of astronomical demand driving a market), and then to the colonies and plantations of America (where unscrupulous traders tried to buy Ayoree Mountain from the Cherokee because of its kaolin), and then to Dachau, where he discovers a thriving porcelain factory serving the greed of the Nazis for crockery and figurines during the Second World War.
De Waal is an idiosyncratic and quirky writer which has made many a reviewer quite frustrated with his episodic, switching style (and the layout of the book; spacy, short paragraphs) but I found myself intrigued and interested in his shifts between art making, autobiography, history, archive work, pure preoccupation with a process and then, of course, ploughing through the muck and murk of colonialism and capitalism and the horror of Nazi fascination with “China”.
We also don’t escape the effects of working with porcelain: a dust so fine that it causes lung diseases and which has had devastating effects on the health of hundreds of generations of workers in Jingdezhen. De Waal tells us that when Ai Weiwei did his installation at the Tate Modern by covering the turbine hall with porcelain seeds (all purposely made in Jingdezhen), the exhibition had to be closed within a few days of opening because of the dust created by visitors walking on the seeds.