The White Road: Journey into an Obsession

by Edmund De Waal

Hardcover, 2015




Knopf Canada (2015), 416 pages


"An intimate narrative history of porcelain, structured around five journeys through landscapes where porcelain was dreamed about, fired, refined, collected, and coveted"--

User reviews

LibraryThing member PDCRead
As a ceramicist who has worked with clay for the past 25 years creating slender and delicate pots, all things white are an passion for de Waal. This book is a physical and spiritual journey to the places and origins of these materials that fuse together to create the translucent, ethereal material that is porcelain. His desire is to hold the raw materials in his own hands, to climb the hills where the white earth is dug from, to possess a pot made that place.

China was the place where porcelain was invented; the fusion of two materials kaolin and petuntse after purification, blending and firing at 1300 degrees brings forth this glass like substance. His pilgrimage starts in the city of Jingdezhen, centre of porcelain for 1000 years, but best known now for its helicopters. Modern China is an intense place, I know I have been there, and as he finds his way around the city avoiding road traffic, he realises that the city seems to built on broken pottery, stooping he picks up a 12th century shard laying on a spoil heap. All around the hillside are kilns, and the failed firings are just tossed away. This city produced thousand upon thousand of pieces of pottery for the Emperors, the final order being taken shortly after the turn of the nineteenth century. They are still making porcelain there, but not in the volume they used to, and he is there to source tiles for an exhibition too.

And so to Germany. A young alchemist called Böttger claims to have found the secret of changing other metals into gold. He couldn’t. Held in prison, he works alongside a mathematician called Tschirnhaus, and after many failures they manage to reveal the secret of making porcelain like the Chinese. Soon after producing this single white cup, Tschirnhaus dies. He wasn’t able to make gold, but the discovery of this white gold changes the fortunes of many in Europe. One inventory details a few hundred pieces of porcelain, the last time it was counted was over 35,000 items.

De Waal heads home to England, in pursuit of his final white hill. As the English potters scour the countryside in search of this white clay, necessitating a trip to the land of the Cherokee in America, the find the materials just down the road in Cornwall. Plymouth becomes the third place in the World to produce porcelain around 1000 years after the Chinese first achieved it.

This book is a blend of genres; part travelogue, part history book, semi auto-biographical and full of whimsy and occasionally random thoughts. There are accounts of his art installations and exhibitions, his first workshop on the Welsh border, his angsts of the creative process, the collectors and guardians of exquisite pieces of pottery and those that have made and lost fortunes with this white gold.

But much more than that, this is an account of his obsession with porcelain.

It sometimes feels like he has just transcribed his notes directly onto the manuscript prior to sending to the publisher, with little or no editing. Not everyone will like that style, but for me that is its allure. Like his artful pots, the writing is beautiful, quirky, flawed in parts and most importantly soars. Now he has written again, he has returned to the wheel and the white clay and is making again.
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LibraryThing member neal_
When I plucked this lovely looking book* from the shelf in the bookshop I assumed, for no accountable reason, that it was a novel. I realised my mistake as soon as I started reading, but within a couple of paragraphs I was completely hooked. Who could possibly imagine the history of porcelain to be so interesting? A marvellous book, full of historical information and fascinating anecdotes. De Waal's enthusiasm and passion for his subject is undeniably infectious, despite the fact that reading this book is as close as I'll ever come to throwing a pot of any kind!

* hardback, well bound, good quality paper, excellent typeface, nice bookmark - all these add multiple bonus points for reading pleasure.
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LibraryThing member bostonian71
Not as cohesive as De Waal's previous book, "The Hare with the Amber Eyes". That memoir had the advantage of having concrete things (his family and the netsuke they owned) to tie everything together. "The White Road", on the other hand, follows an idea -- the "porcelain" sickness -- as it manifested itself in various spots around the world, and led to such pottery being invented over and over. Such hopping from one place to another and one time to another (as well as interludes about De Waal's own forays into the craft) makes for a somewhat disjointed narrative. There's a lot of interesting information, though, , even if some of it, most notably Hitler's obsession with pure white pottery, is disturbing. And De Waal clearly cares about his subject, so much so that I wish this book had less of him rushing around learning about the history of his art, and more of him in the studio actually making it.… (more)
LibraryThing member lesleynicol
Another book in my library that remains unfinished, I so enjoyed the authors previous book "The Hare with Amber Eyes" and expected a story about people associated with the history of porcelain. I was disappointed.
LibraryThing member booktsunami
I wavered about giving "the White Road" 5 stars. In many ways it is certainly worth it but on the other hand I found it went on about one sequence too much...and....a bit like the novel Moby Dick....the style became a little repetitive ...maybe a tad boring.
That said. He writes beautifully and it is interesting and easy reading for the most part. I probably didn't really need the section on the Nazi porcelain factory. It's not really relevant to the story about the introduction of porcelain into the west ....which is the underlying theme....and he might just was well have focussed on any other big, modern, porcelain works ...such as the one in America that produces life sized swans.... (Mentioned as gifts to Mao Tse Tung).
He is at his best when he is teaching around the old clay mines and picking up shards and doing some real detective work in Jingdezhen....and digging up real testimonials from people who visited these places hundreds of years ago.
I have not read his book The Hare with the Amber eyes....but from the reviews I've read if follows a similar kind of structure.....(In the latter case....researching family history via the netsuke of a hare). I feel that I have some empathy with the author because I've collected some exquisite wooden carvings of small animals and insects in Beijing and examined with fascination the equivalent Japanese modes;...some of wood but many of ivory. My particular interest was in these as objects of sculpture and one cannot fail to be impressed by the degree of skill shown in carving these objects ..and the low prices for which they were being sold.
At the same time, I was interested in stone carving, and bronze casting so have some familiarity with crucibles, moulds, furnaces and the dust and noise the surrounds this work. Somewhere along the line I also became curious about porcelain. We were given a piece of extremely expensive Lladro porcelain when we left Spain ...but never truly appreciated it. (My tastes ran more to the raw terracotta cantaros and rhytons) ...and I remember trying to understand what was different about porcelain from other ceramics. My understanding was that it came from a special kind of rock and you had to have the kind of rock to make the clay the produced porcelain. However, as de Wall points out....this is not really correct. Porcelain is a mixture of two kinds of minerals: Petunse (a rock) and Kaolin one of the many varieties of clay. Vary the proportions and you vary the properties of the porcelain. It also needs to be fired at very high temperatures.
The book is a kind of pilgrims account of following the trail of porcelain from it's discovery and perfection in China to an obsession in Europe over porcelain and the consequent independent discovery of the secret in Saxony...and still later in the UK in Plymouth. It is a personal pilgrimage for de Wall who is himself a potter specialising in porcelain. So he understands the medium; can see the flaws in pieces, understands the cobalt decoration appreciates the blind alleys that the various researchers took and manages to temper it all with a fine sense of history and the impact of international trade on fashions.
I had imagined that (given the title) there might be a lot more about the Silk Road ..because many of these porcelains actually travelled to Europe and the middle east vis the silk road. ......But there is virtually nothing about this trade. I did find it shocking that the cultural revolution brought the porcelain manufacture to it's knees and very nearly destroyed it totally and some of the dialogue on this period is profoundly moving (The professor who now washes chopsticks).
I read this book pretty fast which is an indication that I really enjoyed it and found it interesting. But I think it would have been better if he had linked the Cherokee clays into the story a bit better....What happened to these Americal clay deposits after the initial shipment to Wedgewood? How did porcelain get going in America? I found myself wondering this ...and then wondering why he kind of re-visits the Nazi concentration camps (which were apparently fairly central to his previous book) didn't seem connected to the main historical narrative about discovery.
One thing I did like was his description of buying seven Tabs bowls the have been properly aged...... "This is another skill. I watch as a man dips a fat old brush in red clay slip and washes it over the bases of the olive-green jars until it gathers and encrusts in the hot air into that crumbly just-dug-up way"......We can do authenticity if authenticity is what you want". I am reminded of my adventure in buying a small bronze dish on three legs in a Beijing market. After buying. I was pestered by various sellers for me to show them what I had purchased. And when I showed them was cursorily dismissed as being a reproduction. (Though....I thought a really good one). When I learned a little more about Chinese artefacts I realised that people were copying (or counterfeiting...if you prefer) thousands of years ago so that the latest reproductions were copies of copies of copies. The same thing happened with greek sculpture under the romans (Copies of copies of copies) ....and the issues surrounding such copying is explored rather brilliantly by UImberto Eco in his book, "Travels in Hyperreality".
Anyway, I really enjoyed this book though think it would have been better without the section on the Allach foundry. (That seems just like an "add-on").
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LibraryThing member rakerman
An interesting journey through the physical world and intellectual world related to the creation of porcelain. Art, science and history. Can be a bit too much about the process of writing of the book itself at times.



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