Review: ‘The White Road’ is an obsessive journey into the world of porcelain

In 1717, Augustus the Strong of Poland, a porcelain devotee associated with the Meissen facility nearby, developed a passionate need to acquire 18 large Chinese porcelain vases owned by Frederick William I of Brandenburg and Prussia. The vases were not for sale, so Augustus suggested a swap. In exchange for the vases, he would supply William with a battalion of 600 dragoon guards. The deal was accepted, the porcelain became known as the Dragoon Vases, and the battalion took the Meissen cipher — two crossed swords — as its banner.

About two and a quarter centuries later, had you been in Berlin or Warsaw, you could have gone into a store belonging to the Allach company and bought a porcelain cupid or candlestick or storm trooper, and on the underside of the base would have been the Allach mark, which Edmund de Waal tells us, “is the double lightning Sig of the SS. Cleverly, it is also the Meissen mark of the two crossed swords.” The company’s catalog proclaimed that white porcelain was the embodiment of the German soul. The company’s factory — perhaps you’re suspecting something unpleasant by now — was in Dachau.

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Some are no doubt already familiar with this extraordinary information. For the rest of us, the history of porcelain, as told in “The White Road,” is a constantly surprising, sometimes absolutely staggering, coming together of art, craft and commerce, politics and religion, national identity, larger-than-life characters and wild, sometimes ruinous obsession. Who knew?

Not many. Early on in the book, De Waal writes, “Who could not be obsessed with porcelain?” and then answers, “Most people.”

His task is to share his own obsession and make it come alive for those of us who might initially find it less than fascinating, just as he did in his last book, 2010’s “The Hare with Amber Eyes.”

De Waal is well aware that for many, porcelain means a knickknack on Grandma’s mantelpiece. “It has become bourgeois,” he writes. But he is living proof that this isn’t the whole story. He calls himself a potter, but he is also an artist of international reputation, specializing in large-scale installations and interventions, often in major museums, sometimes featuring rooms filled with white porcelain pieces. The effect is simultaneously austere and luxurious, minimalist and opulent, a combination of the ancient and the modern, meditations on accumulation and transience. The book is in part a portrait of the artist, the story of his development and his current working methods. It’s also a kind of manifesto and at various points a meditation on the nature of whiteness; its epigraph is from “Moby-Dick.”

The creation of any pottery is pretty extraordinary. You take some clay, work it to a greater or lesser extent, heat it to an insanely high temperature, and by some quasi-magical process create something that is hard, durable and if you know what you’re doing, beautiful. Porcelain raises all the stakes. It requires a very specific blend of kaolin and petunse, rare enough substances, and demands 23 stages of production, but if you do it right, that beauty becomes transcendent. De Waal helps us understand the process while by no means destroying its mystery.

The book is also partly a travelogue, as De Waal visits places around the world where porcelain is made, traded and appreciated. These include Jingdezhen in China, Versailles , Dresden, Plymouth in England, and North Carolina, the home of Cherokee clay. He observes, describes, talks with people, recounts their stories, visits museums and archives, and sometimes acquires pieces of porcelain. At one point, he needs a number of large white porcelain tiles for an exhibition he’s doing in England, and while in Jingdezhen orders some from a local factory, doubles the order just in case, then doubles it again. He ends up with 121 when he really needs only 17, but he’s a man who has no problem living with a hundred or so too many slabs of porcelain.

Inevitably, some parts of the story are more interesting than others. De Waal’s account of 17th-century German alchemists Böttger and Tschirnhaus taking a break from trying to convert base metals into gold and turning their attentions to the creation of porcelain is compelling. On the other hand, his lengthy description of the battle over a patent between rival porcelain manufacturers Joseph Wedgwood and Richard Champion in 18th-century England isn’t nearly as fascinating as De Waal obviously thinks it is. This is no doubt inevitable with other people’s obsessions.

De Waal is in general an engaging writer with a broad range of reference: Emanuel Swedenborg, Philip Glass, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson among them. There were, however, times when it felt as though he really wanted to be writing a historical novel, of the floaty poetic sort rather than a rip-roaring page-turner. But a man can only do so much. I never wished for more matter — the book is already bursting at the seams — but I did occasionally wish for a little less art. Still, this is a terrific book. If you read it, you’ll never look at porcelain the same way again.


The White Road: Journey Into an Obsession

Edmund de Waal
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 416 pp., $27

Nicholson’s next book is the novel “The Good Torturer.”