Edmund de Waal. The White Road: Journey into an Obsession. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. 401 pp.; 45 b/w illus. $27.00.
Sometimes the little pieces in the center of life’s large white jigsaw puzzle fit together effortlessly, and for a moment life feels like its own great reward. Such was the case with Edmund de Waal’s obsessive journey on “the white road” to porcelain’s origins and my fascinated observation from the edge—the easy part of every puzzle. My part began on November 17, 2015, when I attended the author’s talk at the Colony Club in New York City. As de Waal spirited us through his porcelain adventures, made all the more gripping by his anecdotal style and often slightly unfocused but revelatory slides, initial attention turned to captivation, and by the end of the talk, all of us were leaning forward, on the edge of our chairs. I, an inveterate lecture attendee, declared it the best lecture I had ever heard on any subject and floated home, clutching my autographed copy of The White Road.
In spite of mixed reviews from friends, many of whom had praised de Waal’s first book, the best seller The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), which I had not read, I found this second literary effort both engaging and enlightening. It is written in a highly personal style: his use of words, while economical, is expressive and pictorial; his descriptions are remarkably visual; and he traverses the line between autobiography and biography (the lives of the participants in the porcelain story) with an interesting fluidity.
The author begins his narrative with a quotation from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: “What is this thing of whiteness?” Edmund de Waal is a man who works in white. The clay of porcelain is white, both before and after it is fired, but he needs to know more about this whiteness than just its chemistry and technicalities. He wants to comprehend the entire history of true hard-paste porcelain: its discovery and creation, from the mining and mixing of the clays (chiefly kaolin for the “bones” and plasticity, and petuntse for the “flesh,” the hardness and translucency) to the shaping of the vessels and the firing of the kilns. And he needs to know how, often with little more than vague clues largely gleaned from the early-eighteenth-century letters of Père François Xavier d’Entrecolles (1664–1741), a French Jesuit missionary in China, the knowledge of porcelain making traveled from Jingdezhen to potters in and near Paris, and to Plymouth, England, while in Dresden the secret of the porcelain recipe, the “Arcanum,” was being discovered through scientific experimentation and luck.
The cities of Jingdezhen, Dresden, and Plymouth (with detours to other locations that provide various significant links along the way) are the destinations on de Waal’s journey to trace the origins of porcelain: his “white road” to the “three places where porcelain was invented, or reinvented, [his] three white hills in China and Germany and England” (p. 3). He writes, “I need to get to these places, need to see how porcelain looks under different skies, how white changes with the weather. Other things in the world are white, but for me, porcelain comes first. This journey is a paying of dues to those that have gone before” (p. 3). “White is also my story. From my very first pot. I was five” (p. 10). This is a deeply personal journey.
The book begins: “I’m in China.” In the opening paragraph the author establishes the history, mystery, and eternal fire of Jingdezhen, “the city ‘like one furnace with many vent holes of flame’ . . . It is the city of secrets, a millennium of skills, fifty generations of digging and cleaning and mixing white earth, making and knowing porcelain, full of workshops, potters, glazers, decorators, merchants, hustlers and spies” (p. 1). In China de Waal has found his first white hill, Mount Kao-ling (High Ridge).
He proceeds to Dresden via “a dogleg through Versailles and the court of Louis XIV. I’m tracking the Jesuits and this is where they are, this is where ideas and images of China come into focus. And because this is where porcelain is talked of, I need to listen” (p. 113). Here de Waal finds Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus (1651–1708), the twenty-four-year-old German mathematician, philosopher, and physicist hired by French minister of finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683) to be his son’s tutor. The author follows Tschirnhaus to Dresden and the Goldhaus (a community of scientists), where he experiments with porcelain making. In Dresden they both meet the porcelain-obsessed elector of Saxony, Augustus II “the Strong” (1670–1733), and the deceitful braggart Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682–1719), the apothecary’s assistant, who falsely claims the ability to make gold. In 1708 he and Tschirnhaus discover the “Arcanum” and fire the first piece of porcelain in the Albrechtsburg Castle in Meissen. When Tschirnhaus dies soon after and Böttger snatches the credit, de Waal feels the loss of a friend for whom white is light, and light is porcelain. Having found his second white hill in Dresden, he notes, “So I finish Saxony and write Good Work” (p. 209).
On to Plymouth and the birth of English hard-paste porcelain through the acute observations, experiments, and hard work of a Quaker apothecary, William Cookworthy (1705–1780). William is the only member of the ceramic troupe whom de Waal consistently refers to familiarly, by his first name, as if the two are old friends, sharing qualities of inquiry and mindfulness. The reader senses a real empathy in the agonizing story of Cookworthy’s eventual discovery of the right china clays in Tregonning Hill in Cornwall (recognized through descriptions of the material in the published letters of Père d’Entrecolles) and his trials with the creation and production of a new type of porcelain in Plymouth. The royal warrant for Cookworthy’s patent was published in 1768, the year of William’s first successful firing. de Waal has reached his third white hill.
The manufactory in Plymouth was not a commercial triumph, and it was transferred within two years to Bristol, where it was managed with only slightly less misfortune by another Quaker, Richard Champion (1743–1791), a man constantly challenged by the indefatigable and powerful Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795). The struggle between Champion and Wedgwood involved the 1775 extension of Cookworthy’s patent for hard-paste porcelain (which he had assigned to Champion for a fee and a percentage), but in the background lurked unaker, the mysterious white “Cherokee clay” from Ayoree Mountain in North Carolina, which by the 1740s had been introduced to the Bow factory producing soft-paste porcelain in London, and by the mid-1760s was also known to both Champion and Wedgwood. Economically, however, it was the accessible Cornish clays, not unaker, which attracted Wedgwood, and he made a deal to dig them for pottery, not porcelain. The Bristol factory was doomed, and in 1784 Champion and his family escaped the humiliation of bankruptcy and emigrated to South Carolina.
De Waal and his young son take a road trip to America to find Champion’s grave (ironically on a seam of kaolin) but also to search for the unaker that the Cherokees used “in complex ways”: for house insulation and decoration (“imagine the luminescence of a white space, the faintest glimmer of mica. A porcelain room” [p. 317]), for pots, and “for pipes, not just because it is a fine clay that burns cleanly, but because white is a central ritual colour. It symbolises peace” (p. 317). This becomes his fourth white hill.
While preparing his installation at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which he calls “Signs & Wonders,” de Waal decides he needs to delve into the ceramics of revolutionary Russia and the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany. “It is the last part of my journey, revolution, Porcelain 1919” (p. 332). This is a world of sharp edges, of assemblage over skilled craft, of repetition over imagination, and by the 1930s it is a world of metal, concrete, glass, and imminently of clean, white porcelain. de Waal Googles the name of a glass artist, Wilhelm Wagenfeld (1900–1990), to determine whether he ever made porcelain, and up pops the name Allach—an unrecognized factory in Dachau, near Munich. This blank whiteness draws the author to Dachau. The factory was founded in the town of Allach in 1934, taken over by Heinrich Himmler (1900–1945), and moved in 1940 to larger quarters within the Dachau concentration camp, where it produced primarily white figures of extraordinary virtuosity until its protective shut-down before the liberation of Dachau by U.S. troops in 1945. Among the forty-five monochromatic views of key people, historical events and documents, ceramic factory interiors, places, and porcelain objects—well chosen and appropriately placed, although their illustrative value is limited by their generally small reproduction size on nonglossy paper—is a photo of Hitler and Himmler admiring the Allach figures that the latter gave to the former for his birthday in 1944. Allach is the final stop on de Waal’s white road, but understandably, it is not a fifth white hill. It is a tragic reminder of the fragility of life, and of porcelain. It is a moment of darkness in this journey of white obsession.
In the author’s final reckoning, he ruminates on the dues paid by porcelain makers who preceded him: “This white porcelain . . . costs. Porcelain consumes . . . the wood on the hills, it silts the rivers and clogs the harbors, enters the deltas of your lungs. . . . I remember my years in the workshop, sweeping. And if it costs me, that is one thing. But it is the cost to others. . . . This, I think, is what I’ve been trying to trace, the glimpse of white rising and then sinking below the waves again. The wind catching and eddying white dust, settling and resettling” (p. 387).
Sitting at his wheel he makes 2,455 small porcelain vessels “glazed in whites. I use all the accomplished, attempted, consolatory, melancholy, minatory, lambent whites from my journey” (p. 389). These pots are for his 2010 exhibition in New York, where he is asked at its opening, “How is it possible to make white things?” (emphasis in original), to which he replies that “making porcelain is a way of starting again, finding your way, a route and a detour to yourself” (p. 390).
In finding himself, de Waal has traversed an enormous amount of history, much of it told anecdotally, woven with his own experiences as a potter, with personal comments, and with philosophies, and by the alternation of past and present he avoids didacticism. Through his historic acquaintances along the journey, the story becomes a multiple biography as much as an autobiography, and as such it is perhaps best enjoyed by those with some knowledge of, or at least interest in, porcelain and its protagonists.
The White Road isn’t just an obsession. It isn’t just a journey to the white hills of kaolin and to the origins of true porcelain. It isn’t just an answer to Melville’s question, “What is this thing of whiteness?” It is a journey of self-discovery and of the ultimate revelation that the white road is the road home.