The White Road: Journey into an Obsession
An intimate narrative history of porcelain, structured around five journeys through landscapes where porcelain was dreamed about, fired, refined, collected, and coveted.
Extraordinary new nonfiction, a gripping blend of history and memoir, by the author of the award-winning and bestselling international sensation, The Hare with the Amber Eyes.
In The White Road, bestselling author and artist Edmund de Waal gives us an intimate narrative history of his lifelong obsession with porcelain, or "white gold." A potter who has been working with porcelain for more than forty years, de Waal describes how he set out on five journeys to places where porcelain was dreamed about, refined, collected and coveted-and that would help him understand the clay's mysterious allure. From his studio in London, he starts by travelling to three "white hills"-sites in China, Germany and England that are key to porcelain's creation. But his search eventually takes him around the globe and reveals more than a history of cups and figurines; rather, he is forced to confront some of the darkest moments of twentieth-century history.
Part memoir, part history, part detective story, The White Road chronicles a global obsession with alchemy, art, wealth, craft, and purity. In a sweeping yet intimate style that recalls The Hare with the Amber Eyes, de Waal gives us a singular understanding of "the spectrum of porcelain" and the mapping of desire.
The White Road by Edmund de Waal review – incidents, marvels and misery
The renowned ceramicist’s elegant, even spiritual account of his pilgrimage to the three most important sites in the history of porcelain – Jingzedhen in China, Nazi Dresden and Cornwall
Thursday 1 October 2015 16.00 BST
Edmund de Waal is a potter, a successful ceramicist who has worked with porcelain for 25 years. The idea behind The White Road is given on page three. “It’s really quite simple, a pilgrimage of sorts, to beginnings, a chance to walk up the mountain where the white earth comes from …I have a plan to go to three places where porcelain was invented, or reinvented, three white hills in China and Germany and England.” Three white hills, each yielding a white object.
It does sound simple, elegant; even, dare one say, spiritual. A white road. But although De Waal sticks to the plan, it’s hard to know what the book is: is it a quest, a biography, a history, a travelogue or a bit of all? Certainly a bit of all.
Its three major sections – China, Dresden, Cornwall – each has its hill, and each its white object. For centuries, only the Chinese knew how to make porcelain. They had discovered that it requires two minerals to be mixed: petuntse, which means little white brick, and kaolin. Both are white. Both have to be mined, purified and mixed in the correct proportions. Intense heat is also necessary. Temperatures of 1,300C fuse the two; porcelain is almost a form of glass.
Kaolin is named after a mountain, Kao-ling, near Jingdezhen, in Jiangxi province, which has been a centre of porcelain production for 1,000 years. So the book opens with a travelogue, an account of being in the midst of a contemporary Jingdezhen, of trying to make sense of it and not get lost or run over, while seeking evidence of early porcelain-making. The author stops outside a farm, a modern house, half built, half stucco over thin Chinese brick, old barns set among trees, and under the wheels of his car are shards, pale crescents of porcelain in the red earth.
When De Waal picks up of a piece of 12th-century porcelain from a spoil heap in “a whole landscape of porcelain”, evidence of firings that have gone wrong, he describes it as a “grail moment”. There are hundreds of such old kiln sites, on hillsides where a couple of dozen potters might have been employed. The finished pots would have been taken down to the river, and floated to the city, delivered to the great and wealthy – to a succession of emperors, such as Zhu Di, a monster, mass murderer and builder of the Forbidden City, who ordered the construction of a nine-storey pagoda, glazed with white porcelain bricks from Jingdezhen. A wonder of the world, it survived 500 years, by which time endless thousands of pieces of porcelain ware had been made. Archives kept in the Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute show the last order placed by an emperor to Jingdezhen is dated 1912. Soon after that, the imperial porcelain stores were being looted. But Mao also enjoyed gifts and tributes; he received two specially fired 138-piece tea sets.
By the 17th century, interest in porcelain was peaking in Europe. News from China reached the court at Versailles, mostly from Jesuits. In due course, porcelain arrived; a Versailles inventory dated 1689 lists 381 pieces. Of course, Louis XIV wanted his own manufactories, but no one in Europe knew how. Factories in France failed, attention shifted to Germany, and an extraordinary saga ensued, whereby a mathematician called Tschirnhaus, who had contacts with Spinoza and Leibnitz, teamed up with a damaged boy alchemist called Böttger. The tale here comes very close to fairy story. There are tests, kilns, firing, failures. The boy is imprisoned, and then freed on condition he keep good his promise to transmute clay. Tschirnhaus invents large lenses capable of concentrating enough heat to melt Chinese porcelain. Between them, after years of error, they manage to produce one white translucent cup, whereupon Tschirnhaus dies.
The quest comes next to England, and one feels glad. Surely, the calm and sensible Quakers in Cornwall will be less frenetic in their bid to make porcelain, and the tale will be more measured in the telling? But the story leaps at once to Wedgwood, and to North America, to the Cherokee nation, in whose lands the necessary ingredients are said to lie. A messenger/merchant is sent to undergo adventures and privations, and to secure five tons of white clay, to be shipped home. But he needn’t have gone so far; the two minerals are present in Cornwall. A cider tankard with a vernacular handle, a pleasingly humble object, is made in Plymouth and becomes the first piece of true porcelain ever made in England. The third “white hill” is close to home.
At 400 pages, this book is long, and what fills it is a scurry of names, incidents, marvels and misery. For a quest, especially a spiritual one, it is profoundly materialistic; concerned with the stuff of the world, literally clay. Because this clay is extracted and transmuted and shaped into luxury items, De Waal is concerned also with ownership; and the undertow is one of misery and forced labour on the part of those who will never own anything much. He explores the demands of emperors and kings, centuries even before we reach the porcelain works at Dachau. Himmler craved the stuff. At Christmas, Nazis gave each other porcelain figurines.
George Orwell famously said that a writer should be as a pane of glass; how I longed for De Waal’s prose to take on the virtues of the porcelain he admires: to be translucent, luminous, white. As it is, The White Road is delivered in a breezy, newsy present tense. With short blocks of text. And many sentences that begin with “and”. And many that begin with “I need”, as in, “I need to get to Dresden.” There are sections in third person, sections in second person. It whirls.
But that is De Waal’s undoubted talent: his charm lies in his ability to undertake obsessive research, to pile up and accrue, to involve the reader in this almost frantic travelling and note-taking and reading. It’s leavened with some self-deprecating humour. He knows he’s doing it. He says, if you make things out of porcelain clay, you live in the present moment. Perhaps that accounts for the breathlessness.
Also slipped in are slender notes toward an autobiography; about his early days as a potter, making X in Wales, then Y in Sheffield, before finding success and its trappings: studio assistants, installations and exhibitions in London and New York, commissions for wealthy collectors. It is this, the ventures into the elite world of ownership, that brings us closest to his previous book, The Hare with Amber Eyes. It would have been interesting to read De Waal on the way the unfortunate, often humble craftsman is implicated in this craze for ownership and luxury goods; the labourers, miners and piece-workers. He admits to being caught up in a cult of ownership. He even refers, in a kingly way, to “my Jesuit”, “my alchemist”, “my mathematician”.
There are two kinds of people in the world. One lot are hoarders, those frightened to let anything go, who imbue objects with memories, who feel aghast, naked, stripped of their identity without their accumulations, collections, crowded cabinets and vitrines. They will love this book. The other kind, those who value silence and space, may feel they are asphyxiating, that time and a thorough edit would have revealed the book’s true shape, its “beautiful resonance”. There’s no doubting that The White Road is a mighty achievement, but De Waal is himself relieved when it’s over, and he is back at his wheel in his studio, throwing white pots, “making again”.
The HISTORY of PORCELAIN
Porcelain is a ceramic material made by heating materials, generally including kaolin, in a kiln to temperatures between 1,200 and 1,400 °C (2,200 and 2,600 °F). The toughness, strength, and translucence of porcelain, relative to other types of pottery, arises mainly from vitrification and the formation of the mineral mullite within the body at these high temperatures.
Porcelain was first developed in China around 2,000 years ago, then slowly spread to other East Asian countries, and finally Europe and the rest of the world. Its manufacturing process is more demanding than that for earthenware and stoneware, the two other main types of pottery, and it has usually been regarded as the most prestigious type of pottery for its delicacy, strength, and its white colour. It combines well with both glazes and paint, and can be modelled very well, allowing a huge range of decorative treatments in tablewares, vessels and figurines. It also has many uses in technology and industry.
The European name, porcelain in English, come from the old Italian porcellana (cowrie shell) because of its resemblance to the translucent surface of the shell. Porcelain is also referred to as china or fine china in some English-speaking countries, as it was first seen in imports from China. Properties associated with porcelain include low permeability and elasticity; considerable strength, hardness, toughness, whiteness, translucency and resonance; and a high resistance to chemical attack and thermal shock.
Porcelain has been described as being "completely vitrified, hard, impermeable (even before glazing), white or artificially coloured, translucent (except when of considerable thickness), and resonant." However, the term porcelain lacks a universal definition and has "been applied in a very unsystematic fashion to substances of diverse kinds which have only certain surface-qualities in common".Traditional East Asian thinking only classifies pottery into low-fired wares (earthenware) and high-fired wares (porcelain), without the intermediate European class of stoneware, and the many local types of stoneware were mostly classed as porcelain, though often not white and translucent. Terms such as "porcellaneous" or "near-porcelain" may be used in such cases. A high proportion of modern porcelain is made of the variant bone china.
Kaolin is the primary material from which porcelain is made, even though clay minerals might account for only a small proportion of the whole. The word "paste" is an old term for both the unfired and fired material. A more common terminology these days for the unfired material is "body"; for example, when buying materials a potter might order an amount of porcelain body from a vendor.
The composition of porcelain is highly variable, but the clay mineral kaolinite is often a raw material. Other raw materials can include feldspar, ball clay, glass, bone ash, steatite, quartz, petuntse and alabaster.
The clays used are often described as being long or short, depending on their plasticity. Long clays are cohesive (sticky) and have high plasticity; short clays are less cohesive and have lower plasticity. In soil mechanics, plasticity is determined by measuring the increase in content of water required to change a clay from a solid state bordering on the plastic, to a plastic state bordering on the liquid, though the term is also used less formally to describe the facility with which a clay may be worked. Clays used for porcelain are generally of lower plasticity and are shorter than many other pottery clays. They wet very quickly, meaning that small changes in the content of water can produce large changes in workability. Thus, the range of water content within which these clays can be worked is very narrow and consequently must be carefully controlled.
Unlike their lower-fired counterparts, porcelain wares do not need glazing to render them impermeable to liquids and for the most part are glazed for decorative purposes and to make them resistant to dirt and staining. Many types of glaze, such as the iron-containing glaze used on the celadon wares of Longquan, were designed specifically for their striking effects on porcelain. Bisque porcelain is unglazed.
Porcelain wares may be decorated under the glaze using pigments that include cobalt and copper or over the glaze using coloured enamels. Like many earlier wares, modern porcelains are often biscuit-fired at around 1,000 °C (1,830 °F), coated with glaze and then sent for a second glaze-firing at a temperature of about 1,300 °C (2,370 °F) or greater. Another early method is once-fired where the glaze is applied to the unfired body and the two fired together in a single operation.
In this process, green (unfired) ceramic wares are heated to high temperatures in a kiln to permanently set their shapes. Porcelain is fired at a higher temperature than earthenware so that the body can vitrify and become non-porous.
Porcelain originated in China. Although proto-porcelain wares exist dating from the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC), by the time of the Eastern Han Dynasty period (206 BC – 220 AD), glazed ceramic wares had developed into porcelain. Porcelain manufactured during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) was exported to the Islamic world, where it was highly prized. Early porcelain of this type includes the tri-colour glazed porcelain, or sancai wares. There is no precise date to separate the production of proto-porcelain from that of porcelain. Porcelain items in the sense that we know them today could be found in the Tang Dynasty, and archaeological finds have pushed the dates back to as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). By the Sui Dynasty (581–618 AD) and Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD), porcelain was widely produced.
Eventually, porcelain and the expertise required to create it began to spread into other areas of East Asia. During the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD), artistry and production had reached new heights. The manufacture of porcelain became highly organised, and the kiln sites excavated from this period could fire as many as 25,000 wares. While Xing Ware is regarded as among the greatest of the Tang Dynasty porcelain, Ding Ware became the premier porcelain of Song Dynasty.
By the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD), porcelain wares were being exported to Europe. Some of the most well-known Chinese porcelain art styles arrived in Europe during this era, such as the coveted blue-and-white wares. The Ming Dynasty controlled much of the porcelain trade, which was expanded to Asia, Africa and Europe via the Silk Road. In 1517, Portuguese merchants began direct trade by sea with the Ming Dynasty, and in 1598, Dutch merchants followed.
Some porcelains were more highly valued than others in imperial China. We can identify the most valued types by their association with the court, either as tribute offerings, or as products of kilns under imperial supervision. Some of the best-known examples are of Jingdezhen porcelain. During the Ming dynasty, Jingdezhen porcelain become a source of imperial pride. The Yongle emperor erected a white porcelain brick-faced pagoda at Nanjing, and an exceptionally smoothly glazed type of white porcelain is peculiar to his reign. Jingdezhen porcelain's fame came to a peak in the Qing dynasty.
Nabeshima ware dish with Hydrangeas, c. 1680-1720, Arita, Okawachi kilns, hard-paste porcelain with cobalt and enamels
Although the Japanese elite were keen importers of Chinese porcelain from early on, they were not able to make their own until the arrival of Korean potters taken captive during the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–98). They brought an improved type of kiln, and one of them spotted a source of porcelain clay near Arita, and before long several kilns had started in the region. At first their wares were similar to the cheaper and cruder Chinese porcelains with underglaze blue decoration that were already widely sold in Japan; this style was to continue for cheaper everyday wares until the 20th century.
Exports to Europe began around 1660, through the Dutch East India Company, the only Europeans allowed a trading presence. Chinese exports had been seriously disrupted by civil wars as the Ming dynasty fell apart, and the Japanese exports increased rapidly to fill the gap. At first the wares used European shapes and mostly Chinese decoration, as the Chinese had done, but gradually original Japanese styles developed. Nabeshima ware was produced in kilns owned by that family of feudal lords, and used decoration in the Japanese tradition, much of it related to textile design. This was not initially exported, but used for gifts to other aristocratic families. Imari ware and Kakiemon are broad terms for styles of export porcelain with overglaze "enamelled" decoration begun in the early period, both with many sub-types.
A great range of styles and manufacturing centres were in use by the start of the 19th century, and as Japan opened to trade in the second half, exports expanded hugely, and quality typically declined. Much traditional porcelain continues to repeat older methods of production and styles, and there are several modern industrial manufacturers.
These exported Chinese porcelains were held in such great esteem in Europe that in the English language china became a commonly–used synonym for the Franco-Italian term porcelain. The first mention of porcelain in Europe is in Il Milione by Marco Polo in XII sec. Apart from copying Chinese porcelain in faience (tin glazed earthenware), the soft-paste Medici porcelain in 16th-century Florence was the first real European attempt to reproduce it, with little success.
Early in the 16th century, Portuguese traders returned home with samples of kaolin, which they discovered in China to be essential in the production of porcelain wares. However, the Chinese techniques and composition used to manufacture porcelain were not yet fully understood. Countless experiments to produce porcelain had unpredictable results and met with failure. In the German state of Saxony, the search concluded in 1708 when Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus produced a hard, white, translucent type of porcelain specimen with a combination of ingredients, including kaolin and alabaster, mined from a Saxon mine in Colditz. It was a closely guarded trade secret of the Saxon enterprise.
In 1712, many of the elaborate Chinese porcelain manufacturing secrets were revealed throughout Europe by the French Jesuit father Francois Xavier d'Entrecolles and soon published in the Lettres édifiantes et curieuses de Chine par des missionnaires jésuites. The secrets, which d'Entrecolles read about and witnessed in China, were now known and began seeing use in Europe.
Von Tschirnhaus and Johann Friedrich Böttger were employed by Augustus II the Strong and worked at Dresden and Meissen in the German state of Saxony. Tschirnhaus had a wide knowledge of science and had been involved in the European quest to perfect porcelain manufacture when in 1705 Böttger was appointed to assist him in this task. Böttger had originally been trained as a pharmacist; after he turned to alchemical research, he claimed to have known the secret of transmuting dross into gold, which attracted the attention of Augustus. Imprisoned by Augustus as an incentive to hasten his research, Böttger was obliged to work with other alchemists in the futile search for transmutation and was eventually assigned to assist Tschirnhaus. One of the first results of the collaboration between the two was the development of a red stoneware that resembled that of Yixing.
A workshop note records that the first specimen of hard, white and vitrified European porcelain was produced in 1708. At the time, the research was still being supervised by Tschirnhaus; however, he died in October of that year. It was left to Böttger to report to Augustus in March 1709 that he could make porcelain. For this reason, credit for the European discovery of porcelain is traditionally ascribed to him rather than Tschirnhaus.
The Meissen factory was established in 1710 after the development of a kiln and a glaze suitable for use with Böttger's porcelain, which required firing at temperatures of up to 1,400 °C (2,552 °F) to achieve translucence. Meissen porcelain was once-fired, or green-fired. It was noted for its great resistance to thermal shock; a visitor to the factory in Böttger's time reported having seen a white-hot teapot being removed from the kiln and dropped into cold water without damage. Evidence to support this widely disbelieved story was given in the 1980s when the procedure was repeated in an experiment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Chantilly porcelain, soft-paste, 1750-1760
The pastes produced by combining clay and powdered glass (frit) were called Frittenporzellan in Germany and frita in Spain. In France they were known as pâte tendre and in England as "soft-paste". They appear to have been given this name because they do not easily retain their shape in the wet state, or because they tend to slump in the kiln under high temperature, or because the body and the glaze can be easily scratched.
Experiments at Rouen produced the earliest soft-paste in France, but the first important French soft-paste porcelain was made at the Saint-Cloud factory before 1702. Soft-paste factories were established with the Chantilly manufactory in 1730 and at Mennecy in 1750. The Vincennes porcelain factory was established in 1740, moving to larger premises at Sèvres in 1756. Vincennes soft-paste was whiter and freer of imperfections than any of its French rivals, which put Vincennes/Sèvres porcelain in the leading position in France and throughout the whole of Europe in the second half of the 18th century.
The first soft-paste in England was demonstrated by Thomas Briand to the Royal Society in 1742 and is believed to have been based on the Saint-Cloud formula. In 1749, Thomas Frye took out a patent on a porcelain containing bone ash. This was the first bone china, subsequently perfected by Josiah Spode.
In the twenty-five years after Briand's demonstration, a number of factories were founded in England to make soft-paste table-wares and figures:
St James's (1748)
Bristol porcelain (1748)
Longton Hall (1750)
Royal Crown Derby (1750 or 1757)
Royal Worcester (1751)
Lowestoft porcelain (1757)
William Cookworthy discovered deposits of kaolin in Cornwall, making a considerable contribution to the development of porcelain and other whiteware ceramics in the United Kingdom. Cookworthy's factory at Plymouth, established in 1768, used kaolin and china stone to make porcelain with a body composition similar to that of the Chinese porcelains of the early 18th century.
Porcelain can be divided into the three main categories (hard-paste, soft-paste and bone china), depending on the composition of the paste used to make the body of the porcelain object and the firing conditions.
These porcelains that came from East Asia, especially China, were some of the finest quality porcelain wares. The earliest European porcelains were produced at the Meissen factory in the early 18th century; they were formed from a paste composed of kaolin and alabaster and fired at temperatures up to 1,400 °C (2,552 °F) in a wood-fired kiln, producing a porcelain of great hardness, translucency, and strength.Later, the composition of the Meissen hard paste was changed and the alabaster was replaced by feldspar and quartz, allowing the pieces to be fired at lower temperatures. Kaolinite, feldspar and quartz (or other forms of silica) continue to constitute the basic ingredients for most continental European hard-paste porcelains.
Soft-paste porcelains date back from the early attempts by European potters to replicate Chinese porcelain by using mixtures of clay and frit. Soapstone and lime were known to have been included in these compositions. These wares were not yet actual porcelain wares as they were not hard nor vitrified by firing kaolin clay at high temperatures. As these early formulations suffered from high pyroplastic deformation, or slumping in the kiln at high temperatures, they were uneconomic to produce and of low quality. Formulations were later developed based on kaolin with quartz, feldspars, nepheline syenite or other feldspathic rocks. These were technically superior, and continue to be produced. Soft-paste porcelains are fired at lower temperatures than hard-paste porcelain, therefore these wares are generally less hard than hard-paste porcelains.
Although originally developed in England in 1748 in order to compete with imported porcelain, bone china is now made worldwide. The English had read the letters of Jesuit missionary Francois Xavier d'Entrecolles, which described Chinese porcelain manufacturing secrets in detail. One writer has speculated that a misunderstanding of the text could possibly have been responsible for the first attempts to use bone-ash as an ingredient of English porcelain, although this is not supported by researchers and historians. In China, kaolin was sometimes described as forming the 'bones' of the paste, while the 'flesh' was provided by the refined rocks suitable for the porcelain body. Traditionally, English bone china was made from two parts of bone-ash, one part of kaolin and one part china stone, although this has largely been replaced by feldspars from non-UK sources.