De Wall is a potter (and writer) who made his first pot aged five and spent the next several decades trying to create perfect porcelain. Here he shares with us his almost Arthurian quest for its secrets. It is a journey in both time and space; historically from porcelain’s first emergence to its recreation in Europe and, eventually, by William Cookworthy in 1768 in England, and its fate thereafter; spatially in his own and others’ worldwide travels in search of the pure whiteness of its finest embodiment. Skilfully interwoven autobiography bridges these dimensions in a quintessentially personal narrative. Travelogue and textbook are intertwined. As he goes his way he collects and critically explains raw materials and iconic specimens but also, like Shakespeare’s Autolycus, is a snapper up of unconsidered but always intriguing trifles.
- Edmund de Waal
The first quarter of the book takes us to Jingdezhen in China, the author guided by the letters from 1722 of the Jesuit Pè re d’Entrecolles who gave the West its first insights into the art and science of porcelain. Sometimes de Waal has to travel pretty rough and there are odd undertones of farce as his official guides misunderstand (perhaps deliberately) his role, status and objectives. A minor irritation is the use of modern transliterations which (as in Beijing for Peking) bear no relationship to what the place names actually are in English.
The second quarter takes us to Paris, Dresden, and Meissen where a very badly treated and bullied Johann Friedrich Bö ttger - essentially a failed alchemist - in 1708 independently creates the first European porcelain, under the aegis and management of the polymath Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus. There is a pleasant whimsicality to de Wall’s style; at one point we go to bed in Saxony and wake up in Japan.
The next section takes us to Cornwall and the Quaker Cookworthy’s eventually-rewarded twenty year search. This is followed by an account of Josiah Wedgwood’s despatching a minion on a long and hazardous expedition into Cherokee country from the pre-revolutionary Carolinas in search of kaolin. The more entrepreneurial Richard Campion takes over in Plymouth, injects some business savvy into the operation and moves it to Bristol. The painstaking, thorough, systematic Wedgwood, with his greater political nous and clout, then moves in on Campion and breaks his monopoly and destroys Cookworthy’s patent. De Waal follows the Wedgwood story to the Cherokee country and back to Stoke, as it was with its silicosis and toxicity and child labour, and as it is now.
We visit Russia and meet Marx and Lenin and, almost as an aside, learn how to set up an exhibition. De Waal then makes pilgrimage to Dachau and explains the Allach porcelain made for the SS by slave labour under conditions of barbarous brutality. Like his ceramics the text is economical - just fact, after fact, after fact so that the true horror is delivered far more effectively than if the narration had been embellished with rococo journalistic indignation. Our guide is a survivor, Hans Landauer. The white has become a very dark grey indeed.
There is then a final return to Jengdezhen to show us the criminal idiocy, iconoclasm - destruction of centuries-old moulds - and erratic, murderous brutality of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Two survivors tell us how it was. But porcelain survives, its acolytes choking through their silicosis.
This pageant of porcelain includes such major players as Kang-xi, Yong-le and other Chinese emperors, Louis XIV and Augustus the Strong, and also guest appearances or walk-on parts for such as Marco Polo, Leibnitz, Daniel Defoe, Frederick of Prussia, Sophie of Hanover, William Penn, Benjamin Franklin, Swedenborg and Edmund Burke. Angels and Moby Dick also find their way in via the odd drop of metaphysics.
The smooth flow of the narrative belies the extraordinary depth of research that underpins this work. If it were an academic work, rather than a personal account, annotated references and an index would have been welcome; if that is what you want, de Wall’s website supplies a reading list. This is cunning: we are led through an exhibition of de Waal’s product, austere, minimalist. Others have not liked his elegant and erudite writing style; I loved it, animated as it is by the author’s lifelong enthusiasm for his subject. I never knew what was around the next corner. Perhaps there is an occasional touch of pseud, but I found the book compulsive reading.