Edmund de Waal in his studio, London, July 2013

Andrew Testa/The New York Tines/Redux

Edmund de Waal in his studio, London, July 2013

The White Road is a large and singular literary object, a book with no obvious prototype. Edmund de Waal has put forward its 401 pages on the strength of two credentials. The runaway success of The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), an account of his Jewish ancestors in nineteenth-century Paris and twentieth-century Vienna, made de Waal known far beyond his native England as an intimate and lyrical writer with a sophisticated grasp of cultural history. But the preceding twenty-four years of his career had been devoted to pottery, in which art his favored material has been porcelain. That precious white substance is what his new book in some sense addresses.

In what sense? The text tells us something about how the author himself works porcelain and much about how it has historically been worked, as well as about how you might appreciate the results. It refuses to settle down, however, as a manual, a factual history, or a connoisseur’s guide. To call porcelain the “ostensible” subject of The White Road would suggest that the physical material stands for or else veils some ulterior concern. And yes, de Waal’s text has poetic and reflective aspects, but it can’t be categorized as allegory, autobiography, or cultural theory. It is presented first and last as a travelogue, bearing the subtitle “Journey into an Obsession.”1 The pursuit of porcelain, the phrase seems to suggest, has become its own reward. The text emanates from some all-absorbing abstract terminus for personal endeavor, some baffling white hole.

To make porcelain proper (“hard-paste” porcelain, as opposed to imitation “soft-paste”), you need to blend a white clay with a powdered rock. The two substances, each usually aluminosilicate in composition, will fuse and vitrify when fired at extremely high temperatures to deliver a translucent and heat-resistant product. Kaolin, the clay to use, takes its name from the veins of it found at Mount Kaoling, some forty miles outside the city of Jingdezhen, which is itself three hundred miles southwest of Shanghai.

It is in this region that de Waal starts his self-styled “pilgrimage,” his attempt to retrace the crossroads in his chosen material’s history. He enters a disused quarry on the mountain in which “the walls are great cuts of white” and picks up some silvery stuff from the floor that “crumbles in my fingers…. This is it, kaolin, my beginning.” His text would have you suppose that Jingdezhen is likewise porcelain’s “fabled Ur,” the site where the product originated a thousand years ago. More dispassionate historians complicate that story, explaining that a Song emperor decided to concentrate in this single site production processes evolved in other parts of China. Yet from a Western perspective the statement makes sense: it was items of elite artistry from Jingdezhen that traders started carrying on the Silk Road from the time of Marco Polo onward, and part of de Waal’s task is to tell how, many centuries later, Europeans would succeed in paralleling Jingdezhen’s technologies.

The materials, it turned out, were available at various sites across the world. Each of these might merit the pilgrim’s attention, but de Waal must select: he walks, for instance, the hills of Cornwall, where William Cookworthy in the 1740s discovered the ingredients for an indigenous English manufacture, but he bypasses Limoges in France, the source for the twenty-kilo plastic bags of porcelain blend regularly dispatched to his own pottery studio in south London.

What he describes instead is how he processes the delivered goods: how he wedges the clay, throws it on the wheel, and coaxes the emergent vessel’s walls to rise up so that its “volume changes like an exhalation, something being said.” Here too de Waal’s fingers supply him with a foundational experience. Knowing the clay in all its slithery pliancy, he feels he can reach out to potters across history, whenever he puts a hand to their handiwork. The qualities of a Jingdezhen bowl from the twelfth century communicate in “a continuous present of active, dynamic movements, judgements and decisions.” Inside knowledge equally exposes lack of quality. A curator passes de Waal what might be Europe’s oldest Chinese ceramic import, the fourteenth-century Gaignières-Fonthill vase: putting on the museum’s “Michael Jackson white gloves,” he closes in on the original potter’s botched workmanship and banal sense of form.

Imagine handling a vessel, and you might go on to imagine the heat of tea, say, or the cool of wine. Vessels, you might suppose, are meant to contain. That, however, is not the inclination of de Waal’s thinking. To be obsessed with porcelain is to step aside from usefulness. There is a moment when the potter’s hollowed lump of clay is an actual weight in the hand, and then an afterward in which it is set on the shelf. The charismatic pallor of this particular material suits it for the latter, exclusively visual plane. Porcelain is typically over there, stuff to behold in a continuous present that becomes an aesthetic eternity. It is inherently dreamy, even while it is being handled: “As I make this jar I’m in China.”


When de Waal has exhibited his own recent work, his small, meek white pots get grouped in tiered arrays behind glass as if to emphasize this awayness. They are only to be seen contingently, and while vessel mouths beneath eye level seem to promise near-total disclosure, those on higher shelves preserve secrecy. You could interpret this as a conceptual ceramics, a display reflecting on conditions of display; alternately, de Waal’s talk of “exhalation” might give you license to infer a spiritual symbolism, “spirit” being a synonym for “breath.”

Porcelain, then, has multiple modes. It derives from deposits in the ground, each evoking a history; it inheres in weighted, crafted, three-dimensional objects; it lingers as a snag in the mind, a chimera of whiteness. De Waal chases his theme on all levels, but as an ambitious and self-conscious literary artist, he cares most for the last. His drift is dematerializing: what most concerns him is porcelain’s imaginative potential. After all, to consider the topic merely by discussing exquisite artifacts might alienate his readers. Fourteen pages into the book, his theme is buoying him up: “Who could not be obsessed?” he rhetorically asks. Three pages onward, the deflating answer hits him: “most people.” For a great many of us cleave to pottery that connects us to what’s earthly and sensual. We get daunted by porcelain’s perennial rarefied chill, even before we register the slick glazes and finicky decoration that so often accompany it. De Waal meets us halfway, allowing that there are whole swaths of eighteenth-century European production to sidestep—museum shelves of “irredeemably precious” Vincennes and Sèvres, for instance, or a costly Meissen bowl of consummate “insipidity.”

At the far end of “the white road” leading to all that courtly daintiness lies the dust and jumble of Jiangxi province, swaggeringly evoked in the first of the book’s five sections. Perhaps it’s a hip journalist who is writing up a ten-day visit to the homeland of kaolin and petunse (the rock Chinese potters mix in), or perhaps it’s an imagist littérateur, reaching out to the old Tang poets. China gets tumbled onto the page in a laconic sprawl of descriptors. In a half-derelict, rubbish-strewn “Factory 72,” for instance, during the quiet of a Sunday afternoon, de Waal overhears “the softness of the clink as the carrier pushes the porcelain down the alleyway to the kiln on her barrow with the two bicycle wheels” while observing how “a boy with his laptop open in front of him, headphones on and a soap opera silently playing, is painting a Tang landscape where three sage men with beards, talking of love or loss, sit amongst rocks.” Rubbish and disorder assail de Waal everywhere, counterpointed with the sublime austerities of Jingdezhen ceramics. His deepest response is to the fifteenth-century “monk’s cap ewers,” small ritual vessels commissioned by a devout but exceptionally murderous emperor. “They are cold, held back, passionate, intense. And they are blindingly white.”

De Waal reaches for further additive cadences as he turns, sleepless in his hotel bed, to reminisce over his distant pre-porcelain past as a stoneware potter in rural England: “Herefordshire is green on green, lichen on old apple branches, ivy in the woods, the rot in the floorboards.” For he is navigating a whole flotilla of stories at once, hopping from comedies of tourist mistranslation to the profligacy of Ming dynasty imperial commissioning, from an eighteenth-century Jesuit’s sojourn in Jingdezhen to his own personal artistic formation. The sentences’ accumulative rhythms assist the task, insofar as all the descriptive phrases thrown forward create ripples in a single indefinite imaginative pool. No articulate structure contains them and there can be nothing to argue with—which is why not only poets but Op-Ed columnists are fond of sentences that begin with the word “and.” It comes as a surprise, therefore, when de Waal—having waved farewell to China and to the “suburban” taste revealed in its most recent imperial porcelain, fired in 1975 for Chairman Mao—launches into his account of porcelain in early modern Europe with a salute to the philosopher Leibniz as “my hero, the father of rationalism.”

Heinrich Himmler’s birthday gifts to Adolf Hitler of porcelain figurines made under the Nazis, Berlin, April 1944; from The White Road

Bayerische Staatsbibliothek/Heinrich Hoffmann

Heinrich Himmler’s birthday gifts to Adolf Hitler of porcelain figurines made under the Nazis, Berlin, April 1944; from The White Road

What could rationalism have to do with this spangled and capricious tour of emperors’ follies and of the no less delirious avidity directed at Jingdezhen ceramics as they reached the courts of Baroque Europe? Well, you might wish to read the story of how Westerners reinvented hard-paste porcelain as a demonstration of scientific method, though the evidence is equivocal.


A natural philosopher named Ehrenfried von Tschirnhaus, a correspondent of Leibniz’s, certainly played one of the lead parts. Porcelain’s material properties, in particular its translucence, intrigued him and he did his best to analyze its composition. In the 1690s Tschirnhaus fell in with Augustus, elector of Saxony and king of Poland, a big spender frenzied with Porzellankrankheit, “porcelain sickness,” who was amassing tens of thousands of imports in his palace at Dresden. The intellectual looked to the man of appetite to support his investigations, but the latter was really looking elsewhere: to a third party, a young alchemist named Johann Böttger, whose rash claim that he saw a way to transmute base metal into gold led Augustus to imprison him in the state laboratories until he could deliver this magic solution to the king’s debts. In the labs the impulsive occultist and the methodical experimentalist got thrown together, both subject to the whims of a monarch avid for results.

What they were finally able to offer the king in 1708, after five years of test firings, was “white gold”—the formula and the production process for porcelain that were then set rolling at Saxony’s famous Meissen factory. Just two days after the discovery was announced, Tschirnhaus died—supposedly of dysentery, though de Waal declines to mention this—following which, his papers went missing. It was Böttger who got remembered as Meissen’s presiding genius.

This charged story, the subject of Janet Gleeson’s 1998 best seller The Arcanum, cannot fail to fascinate, but it half slips through its latest narrator’s fingers. De Waal struggles to know what to make of Böttger. Was the alchemist nothing but a villainous impostor, or was he—as Nicholas Zumbulyadis, an authority on Meissen, persuasively argued in 20102—responsible for a critical breakthrough in the research? De Waal assures us that he has read up on alchemy with “fierce concentration,” but admits that it caused him agonies of intellectual bad taste. So he keeps his distance from Böttger’s confusing company and communes instead with Tschirnhaus, the sort of person he admires, an Enlightenment philosopher whose writings—much like his own—dwell on “the value of looking and thinking about how an object as an idea comes into being.”

De Waal’s prose thrives on exchanges of curiosity: he achieves a comparable friendship across time with Charles Ephrussi, his Parisian aesthete forebear, in The Hare with Amber Eyes. Given the right man to walk and talk with, he can happily amble his way through all the circumstantial chaos he encounters on his “pilgrimage.” (He offers a terrific impression of the “hell” of the Meissen laboratories.) But his skills are hardly those of a novelist, and sometimes it is a novelist that a story calls out for.

William Cookworthy, hailed by de Waal for creating in 1768 “the first piece of true porcelain ever made in England,”3 provides another candidate for companionship. De Waal spends many pages tracing the footsteps of this earnest Quaker pharmacist who, having read the reports of d’Entrecolles (the Jesuit who had recently been stationed at Jingdezhen), connected them to the geology of Cornwall, and who at great length, painstakingly, succeeded in producing original hard-paste ware—only to be swiftly elbowed out of the market by an infinitely smarter businessman, the celebrated Josiah Wedgwood.

These are fond pages: de Waal feels as tenderly for English landscape as he does for Chinese pots, and Cookworthy, a widower cutting a melancholy figure, elicits his sympathy likewise. But by this stage in de Waal’s pilgrimage, the stylistic boots he donned as he set off are sharply pinching his heels. Ceramics, he had told himself, cut across time: all pots are acts of making suspended in aesthetic eternity; the “continuous present,” therefore, must be the tense for this narrative.

It is astonishing how enervating this rule becomes when pursued at length. The reader watches dramatic significance leaching away from every turn in the tale, no matter what its potential. The death of Tschirnhaus, the failure of Cookworthy’s pottery, and an unexpected detour into North Carolina Cherokee country—a prime source for kaolin—all whiz by like speeding cars, affectlessly. You might say this is as it should be. De Waal comes across at once as a devotee of historical detail, whether from Asia or Europe, and an agnostic about historical grand narrative, whatever fondness he claims for Enlightenment values. Present tense is his aesthete’s way of cutting history down to size. But in that case, he leaves himself with two possible frames for his sprawling and poetical four hundred pages. One, leaned on heavily, is the first person. In de Waal’s advance from rural stoneware potter to internationally famed installationist, he has, I guess, combined lofty claims with self-deprecating charm: it’s typical manners for a British self-employed artist; however much you feel you can offer, you know you can only offer.

Fey hesitancies don’t translate that well to the page, however, especially coming from someone with the world at his feet. Traveling to pursue his curiosity just about wherever he pleases, de Waal keeps sending back anxious selfies: “I’m wondering how to write about this city [Jingdezhen]”; “I’m a little apprehensive about Dresden”; “I wonder how many times I can write about setting out.” The collector of books and pots is a collector of further anxieties: “Have I got a week for Goethe?” he frets, at a point in his account of his activities where he has just acquired a large factory. By the end, undeniably, you do feel you know the author: but while he is manifestly kindhearted and in many ways wise, you know him not quite in the way that he might hope. Old-fashioned British reserve should have quashed an equally British style in smugness:

At the opening of the Ceramics Galleries, a bemused royal glances up at my installation seventy feet above us and asks me how will it be dusted and have I come far?

I don’t know, Ma’am, I reply to the first question.

And yes, I think, I have.

The other available backbone to The White Road is proclaimed by its title. On a white wall in the writing room of his south London factory, the furrow-browed globetrotter pins a sheet of white paper bearing a sentence from Herman Melville’s novel about a white whale, on which the phrase “thoughts of whiteness is underlined, repeatedly.” You underline words in order to insist that they mean something. I’m tempted to read de Waal’s picaresque pilgrimage as suggesting that “white” means almost anything. Just as copy paper is colder-hued than wall paint, and snow, milk, and chalk feel intrinsically unalike, so “the colour of mourning in China,” Isaac Newton’s “usual colour of Light,” and the color that for the Nazis “searches out degeneracy” are “whites” spinning off in different directions: What is the word but a relational marker for managing the variousness of the world? Or a hold-all for a baggy, shaggy project? “Minimalism is back, said the magazines,” according to de Waal, as his porcelains took off. But his present production, for all its cool prim design, is the very opposite of minimalist.

Nonetheless it has its own strange urgency. To say that “white” is ambivalent is not, it turns out, to say that it is meaningless. The color and the clay bearing it call out to a need for difference from the world that the author recognizes in himself and invites us to share. The urges to mourn, to purify, and to transcend (the “white as meditation” of the Buddhist monk’s cap ewers) may all back onto the same vacant spot in visual experience. Precious white stuff—porcelain vases, marble statues, or modernist canvases—comes back by way of return, but part of de Waal’s long memo to self is that this junction box is by no means a preserve of virtue.

A late episode in the book turns to the Nazis revering white porcelain as (in their words) “the embodiment of the German soul” and to their grotesque co-option of selected skilled prisoners from Dachau to deliver shiny models of Bambi, as morale-boosting trophies for the SS. In a sense there is nothing to surprise anyone here. Beyond the visible factor of white, we are facing the abstract factor of obsession, and it is hardly news that obsession generates both good and bad in people and good and bad in art. But de Waal’s effort to digest the implications of that proposition in all their weight—as it were, to contemplate in a unified perspective his aesthete Jewish forebears and those who would come to kill them—gives his text seriousness and humanity. The White Road feels like a long book, and a long book may sometimes have qualities peculiar to its size. It may be by turns capricious, slow-drifting, and affected. It may yet enlarge your world.