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18 September 2015updated 22 Sep 2015 10:38am

Edmund de Waal’s The White Road follows the journey of creativity

White is a dangerous colour – and de Waal's journey shows the human cost of porcelain.

By Olivia Laing

White is a dangerous colour. It’s the colour of nothing, of new beginnings, of annihilation, effacement and absolute potential. It comes at a cost, as Captain Ahab knew, and pursuit of it can become a damaging obsession. Edmund de Waal is sensible to its strange charms. Known for his immaculately restrained porcelain pots (as well as his bestselling 2010 memoir, The Hare With Amber Eyes), he first fell under white’s spell at the precocious age of five. Brought along by his father to a pottery class at the local art school, he threw a chubby bowl, refusing an array of coloured glazes and dunking it instead in a bucket of white: “my attempt to bring something into focus”.

There is something both baffled and ardent about this statement and it strikes me that a similar motivation is at work in this beguilingly odd book, which declares itself to be “a pilgrimage of sorts” and is un­usually keen to lay bare the process of its construction and to fret musically over its direction. The White Road is nominally an account of a quest to discover the origins of porcelain, the purest white of earthly materials. Yet, as de Waal travels from China to Dresden, from Cornwall to Carolina, it becomes increasingly clear that what he is bent on uncovering is not so much the history of a process, fascinating as that may be, as an understanding of creation, of what it means to make a desirable something where there was nothing before.

His journey begins in Jingdezhen in south-eastern China, the porcelain capital of the ancient world: a city of burning furnaces and kiln fires, where the markets are still bursting with meticulously aged fakes (“16th-century porcelains from last week”). It was here that the art was perfected more than a millennium ago, the mysterious alchemy by which raw earth was transformed into hard, clear, pale wine jars and gleaming bowls.

The process, kept secret for centuries, begins with the mining of two substances  – petuntse, or porcelain stone, and kaolin, or porcelain clay. First, they are dug from the earth and then they are purified, mixed, shaped, glazed and fired. It was an industry that once involved thousands of different labourers and thousands of now half-extinct skills and techniques, among them “six categories of decorator, three of specialists in packing kilns, three for firing kilns, mould-makers, carpenters for crates, basket-makers, ash men . . .”

Trace the origin of any physical object, from the Mona Lisa to an iPhone, and there will be a mass of human labour and human stories lurking behind it, no matter how purely a product of the solitary artist or glossy factory it might seem to be. What is striking about porcelain, however, is that while it appears to be the acme of artistry, it is, by and large, the result of relentlessly standardised piecemeal work.

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At a factory in Jingdezhen, de Waal watches a man painting only beards, each one perfect and perfectly the same – automation by human hands. A woman moulds petals, day after day, year after year. Inspiration is wholly absent and yet each element contributes to an illusion of absolute aesthetic achievement, from the ornate Fonthill vase to the simplest bowl, a rain-green carp nosing through its depths.

There is an exceptional cost attached to porcelain’s desirability, beyond the potentially lethal consequences of long-term exposure to its toxic components: the cobalt licked from brushes, the kaolin dust breathed into lungs. A veteran of multiple kiln disasters, botched glazes and cracked or collapsing pots, de Waal is only too
aware of what a lust for porcelain necessitates. In 1554, the Jiajing emperor’s list of demands included 26,350 bowls with blue dragons painted inside them. Two years later, his request for wine ewers had soared from 600 to 34,891, each flawless, identical specimen achieved from a rubble of prior failures, the expense of which was always transferred to the worker in the brutal economics of courtly labour.

As porcelain fever reached Europe, kings and princes, too, went on buying sprees, amassing more, purer, whiter, increasingly embellished specimens. The bored and jaded Louis XIV filled up the rooms of ­Versailles with gourds and vases and built his mistress the Trianon de Porcelaine, a love shack that de Waal wryly describes as “a low, handsome building with lots of pots  stuck on to it”.

This growing obsession is what set the stage for the second coming of porcelain, its arduous reinvention in Dresden in the early years of the 18th century. Its formula was painstakingly discovered by the combined offices of Johann Friedrich Böttger, a young alchemist who spent much of his adult life imprisoned in the court of Augustus II, too valuable to be allowed his liberty, and Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, a mathematician, physicist and philosopher, who kept his agitated charge calm while they struggled together in the broiling furnaces of Albrechtsburg Castle in Meissen, where the kilns ran night and day and the very air was poisoned.

The work at Meissen was orderly and rigorous in comparison with the next and most laborious of porcelain’s multiple births. In a slightly lagging midsection, de Waal details the patient English version, in which William Cookworthy, a tubby, intellectually curious Quaker based in Plymouth, doggedly unlocks the secret of porcelain’s composition, only to have his embryonic factory engulfed by Josiah Wedgwood, the kingpin of English china.

These stories together form a pleasingly piecemeal history of porcelain but there is another, persistent pattern inked beneath the glaze. What interests de Waal, what he is attempting to bring into focus, is obsession, a subject of intimate concern to the working artist, who, after all, must tackle the white page or the white bag of clay again and again.

“And William’s [Cookworthy’s] obsession,” he writes, “is also a sort of exhaustion of white. It is a way of keeping himself turned to the world, keeping himself away from all the absences in his life. Obsession can be useful.” It can, but de Waal is also determined to acknowledge its darker aspects, the way drive blots out human concerns, the way hunger for an object obliterates ethical considerations.

Which brings us to Allach, the German porcelain factory that ran right through the Second World War. Allach was Himmler’s pet project. “He wanted it to make objects that were künstlerisch wertvolle – artistically worthwhile – not degenerating into kitsch.” What this meant was glazed white porcelain stags and stallions, porcelain figurines of the Hitler Youth and SS storm troopers; 100 Frederick the Greats on horseback, for Hitler to give as Christmas gifts. The factory was staffed by workers from Dachau. When there was no more coal for the crematoriums, when the bodies of inmates were piling up, supplies were still delivered to fire the Allach kilns.

White is a dangerous colour. It is the ­beginning of things but also the end. Beauty has a price and it is as well to be cognizant of that, especially if what you do is make it. This is a haunting book, a book that amasses itself piece by piece, gaining in weight. It’s about value and also about cost, the way they sometimes refuse to balance out. Art and hurt, the two eternals of the world.

The White Road: a Pilgrimage of Sorts by Edmund de Waal is published by Chatto & Windus, 416pp, £20

Olivia Laing’s “The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone” will be published next year by Canongate

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This article appears in the 16 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War