Book review: The White Road: A Pilgrimage of Sorts by Edmund de Waal

From Jingdezhen to Dresden – the colourful history of porcelain. By Moira Jeffrey

Edmund de Waal's The White Road
Edmund de Waal's The White Road
Edmund de Waal's The White Road

The White Road: A Pilgrimage of Sorts

by Edmund de Waal

Vintage, 416 pp, £20

Artist David Batchelor’s classic account of the deep cultural mistrust of colour, Chromophobia, begins in the white-walled mansion of an art collector. “There is a kind of white that is more than white,” he writes, “and this was that kind of white. There is a kind of white that repels everything that is inferior to it, and that is almost everything.”

White is the colour of obsessives. Translucent white porcelain, a 1,000- year-old Chinese mystery that took the west centuries to crack, is the obsession made manifest. The White Road, the ceramic artist Edmund de Waal’s new cultural history of porcelain, signals early on that white is fraught with danger. He has read Moby Dick, he says, “so I know the dangers of white”.

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If The White Road is a history of porcelain, it is also something more: an account of a personal tug of war between making and writing, by an artist whose family memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes turned him from a respected artist to an award-
winning author with a best-selling book translated into 30 languages.

It is also a meditation on the contradictory pursuit of art and the demands of the lived life: between the travelogue and the historical erudition is a fragmented account of ongoing porcelain work in the artist’s studio. It is also the tale of de Waal’s own road from journeyman potter in Sheffield to fame as an artist who has transcended the traditional categories between art and craft.

But the way is laid with traps and porcelain is dangerous indeed. In the centuries in which Europe tried to imitate Chinese porcelain, fortunes were made and lost, kilns exploded and pioneering researchers, artisans and industrial workers paid a terrible price. De Waal begins by climbing Mount Kao-Ling, which gives its name to kaolin, the mica-starred mineral clay, which along with pottery stone, must be heated to over 1,300 degrees celsius in the kiln.

The artist visits the workshops of Jingdezhen, the Chinese porcelain city where once the streets were paved with porcelain shards. It is a place of great (and lost) expertise now full of hustlers and fakes. He tells of the Yongle emperor who, in the 14th century, built a white porcelain pagoda nine stories high, and who also murdered 2,800 women and children in his own household when there were rumours of a plot.

In Dresden de Waal recounts the story of Augustus the Strong, elector of Saxony and king of Poland, whose porcelain sickness could never be assuaged. Augustus confessed: “One can never get enough of the things and one wishes to have more”. The Meissen porcelain works he founded was a veritable inferno. When he died in 1733 he left 35,798 pieces of porcelain.

Finally, and most terribly, de Waal tells the story of Allach, the SS porcelain works, which moved its production to the Dachau concentration camp in 1940. Himmler, he tells us, particularly favoured white.

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We’ve been a little way down this road before. Bruce Chatwin’s last book, Utz, published shortly before his death in 1988, was a fictional account of a Saxon aristocrat holed up in an apartment with his collection of Meissen and besieged by the horrors of the 20th century: the Nazis, the Soviets and Cold War bureaucrats. It was based on the story of a real collector, Rudolf Just, whose porcelain, long-hidden in a tiny Prague flat, surfaced eventually in Bratislava.

Chatwin’s brittle book suggested that art would always disappoint. But de Waal’s lyrical yet admirably unflinching tale takes us beyond connoisseurship and obsession into the practical realm of making. He draws to a close in the studio where he is making white porcelain for an exhibition in New York.

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Batchelor makes a distinction between white and whites, between the quest for purity and what he calls empirical whites. In making his own artwork de Waal uses “the accomplished, attempted, consolatory, melancholy, minatory, lambent whites from my journey”. In such plurality he finally finds redemption.