The White Road: a pilgrimage of sorts, Edmund de Waal, London: Chatto & Windus, 2015

This bowl was made by someone I didn’t know, in conditions I can only imagine, for functions that I may have got wrong. But the act of reimagining it by picking it up is an act of remaking. (p. 5)

The White Road is an exploration of making, a book in itself finely made.   De Waal is first and foremost a potter, but he concluded that makers need to get out of their studios and workshops and write about the process and benefits of making things.

The pilgrimage of the title is the quest for whiteness in porcelain.   De Waal is searching for three bowls of perfect whiteness by criss-crossing a millennium’s worth of the journeys and experiments that led to them.   He starts where porcelain started, in Jingdezhen in China, then tracing the messy European determination to figure out how the Chinese did it, zooming in on Germany and England but without entirely by-passing France.

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What is white?   It is the colour of mourning, because it folds all colours within it. Mourning is also endless refraction, breaking you up into bits, fragments.  (p. 261)

In his journey to Jingdezhen, he renders vividly the strange imperial combination of occasional enlightenment and regular oppression.   At the same time, he brings to life some remote rulers such as the Yongle (Perpetual Happiness) emperor, born in 1360, whose reign he neatly sums up as having been ‘threaded with extraordinary ideas, backlit by terror’ (p. 79).   A governor of Jingdezhen, Lang Tingyi, ‘radiates capaciousness’, although my favourite of these vignettes is the anonymous distant official who, on reading of the trials and struggles of the Imperial Commissioner for Porcelain, responds:

‘I read everything. I understand. Continue.’   (p. 89)

De Waal tells us that porcelain has been made and traded for a 1,000 years, and found in Europe for about 800.   Some 400 years ago, Europeans starting itching to make it for themselves.   In Germany, another imperial court begins sponsoring the high temperature R&D to crack the porcelain formula.   In England, the same search is on, in an even more haphazardly heuristic way, centering initially on the admirable, likeable, entrepreneurial, Quaker pharmacist William Cookworthy (1705-1780). Following the Act of Toleration in 1698, Quakers had greater freedom, including the right to worship without the threat of prison, though their refusal to take oaths, including the Oath of Allegiance, meant they couldn’t become Members of Parliament.

This pushes the Quakers’ entrepreneurial energy into alternative spaces and ideas.  (p. 222)

Cookworthy lives in verdant Devon where his barometer charts: ‘Some Quantity of Rain’, ‘A considerable Quantity’, ‘A greater Rain’ or ‘Continual and heavy Rain’ (p. 226).   This weather is ever constant and ever changing:

The weather changes here within the quarter-hour. This mostly means you come home drenched, whatever you were expecting at breakfast … Lives can change within the quarter-hour too.  (p. 244)

At the time, a great source of information on China (and elsewhere) was found in Jesuit dispatches.   Some of these meticulously informative letters were published and one day Cookworthy, ‘reaches at the bottom of page 309, a chapter ‘Of the Porcelain or China-ware’.   This chapter changes his life’ (p. 239).  There follows a long, involved process of working with local materials and making unexpected connections between nuggets of local knowledge, culminating in the first British porcelain.

Any good examination of making touches on failure and learning because making, at its best, is bloodhound-dogged in its pursuit of perfection and perfection is elusive. Wedgwood apparently referred to pots that didn’t work out as ‘the Invalids and reprobates’ (p. 286). De Waal articulates the nature of his initial failings, less as a technical issue than an aesthetic one:

In my case they were genuinely unlikeable because they had that killer factor for objects.   They were needy. And once you recognize neediness in an object, it is difficult to live with. The fluidity of your life with it curdles. (p. 94)

His later improvement is summed up crisply: ‘My pots had shed their learning … These were vessels, not obligations’ (p. 154).   A recurring theme in learning to make fine things is that of plentiful time; deep accretions of skill and knowledge won’t be hurried or ‘hacked’, despite the short cut insistence of a hundred skill-quick guides:

This is apprenticeship: the moving of learning from head to hand to head. No short cuts repeats the clock. No short cuts, said Geoffrey during my apprenticeship thirty-five years ago, no mistaking one thing for another. No short cuts, I said to my first apprentice, some twenty years later.   (p. 220)

What perhaps isn’t as often articulated is that skill-building isn’t necessarily something to be blasted through as fast as possible, like a dark tunnel to be traversed in pursuit of that dot of light in the distance, but may be an integral part the serendipitous clamber to any peak of creativity.

A separate but surprising thread that emerges from The White Road is the politicization of porcelain, making you wonder what, if anything, cannot be seen through a political prism by homo politicus. De Waal cannot engage with the history of Jingdezhen without encountering the Cultural Revolution which demanded that pottery be turned over to politics, and that imperial porcelain having perpetuated a hated system needed some cultural cleansing.   The result was a horrific cocktail of wholesale destruction and the bizarre creation of ‘revolutionary’ pottery for the masses.   A Mr. Liu tells de Waal that:

‘We were told to break our own moulds and we then broke them, thousands of them, all the classical figures of Guanyin and Confucius and the poets. The moulds were old – back to the Qing.’ (p. 378)

In the meantime, the colossal Jingdezhen machinery of making is retooled to produce busts and other merchandise serving the Mao cult and its revolution, reaching its nadir in the production of scenes depicting the execution of class enemies.

The questions burn. How do you get to this place, the place where you make a porcelain model of an execution? (p. 87)

In Nazi Germany, we find Himmler and Hitler examining some Allach figurines, like nineteenth century Meissen. Deutsch sein heist klar sein, ‘To be German, is to be clear’, said Hitler (p. 352), oblivious to the muddied irony that his perfect Aryan porcelain was made at Dachau. In revolutionary Russia, it wasn’t much better, with Anatoly Lunarcharsky, Soviet People’s Commissar for Education and head of the People’s Committee for Public Enlightenment, organizing a ‘Crockery for All’ competition asking, ‘What do we want from a plate?’   I laughed at de Waal’s restrained riposte:

That is slightly the problem with revolutions. There are an awful lot of speeches to sit through. (p. 334)

But not to get side-tracked by revolutions and other politics acting as messianic makers remanufacturing humanity.   De Waal succeeds in his quest, albeit less neatly and mathematically than he structured it at the outset.   Serendipity has been allowed a free hand:

I’ve given up on my lists. My three white porcelain cups have become five objects of porcelain. My three white hills have become four. I’ve been taken elsewhere. (p. 386)

Obsession costs. Porcelain is a success. Porcelain consumes hills, the wood on the hills, it silts the rivers and clogs the harbours, enters the deltas of your lungs. (p. 387)

This is not the first time I have read a book by a maker that is better written than many books by writers – see also my review of The Lost Carving by David Esterly.   De Waal wields words beautifully to convey the obsessiveness and the physicality of making done with heart and imagination.   He shows the humanity of some of the pioneers, the occasional randomness of alchemy and the haptic nature of knowledge.   The White Road is a wonderful book which should resonate with anyone who tries to make anything worthwhile, in whatever form or medium.   It is also a cultural history, a history of industrial development and a meditation on making and seeking.

Don’t forget to give up on your lists when your quests take you beyond them.

Patience will reward the virtuous man. And it is near dusk the next day when you break the clay from the front of the kiln, and the bricks are piled scrimshanks rather than in the neat pile you ordered and out comes the first saggar and it is placed on the floor and the lid is broken off and you see, immediately, that it has worked.

You hold it by the handle. You tap it. It rings clear. Plymouth Manufacy around the arms of the city, smudged, and some flowers, smudged. Plymouth made me. And on the base March 14 1768 and an italic C.F., Cookworthy Fecit in cobalt blue. Cookworthy made me.

The white earth has become this white vessel.   It is the first piece of true porcelain ever made in England and this cider tankard with its vernacular handle and its curly italic inscription, its smudged symbol for tin on the base, is already slightly out of date.

This is William’s white pot, my third.  (p. 281)

There is a tenderness about this pot of William Cookworthy. It comes into being through walking and noticing and picking things up and feeling texture, through listening intently, openly, to men working by the side of the road.  (p. 282)



‘Now you get the odd shied stone from that knot of boys that forms and re-forms like a murmuring of starlings in autumn.’

Source: Edmund de Waal, The White Road (London: Chatto & Windus, 2015), p. 221


‘His surfaces oscillate like the breathing flank of some thoroughbred animal.’

Source: Edmund de Waal, The White Road: a pilgrimage of sorts (London: Chatto & Windus, 2015), p. 200


‘… breaks the plate into shards. The glaze hugs the porcelain clay tightly, a Cornish shoreline of white.’

What a magnificent description of the cracked coastline of a broken plate!

Source: Edmund de Waal, The White Road (London: Chatto & Windus, 2015), p. 246


‘The green is as surprising as the colour of willows in spring.’

Source: Edmund de Waal, The White Road (London: Chatto & Windus, 2015), p. 152


‘Images pass, as brief as barked slogans.’

Source: Edmund de Waal, The White Road (London: Chatto & Windus, 2015), p. 374


‘His assets are negligible, a word that crumbles scant as rust.’

Source: Edmund de Waal, The White Road (London: Chatto & Windus, 2015), p. 306


‘I wanted it to be a gesture, as easy as a hand on a shoulder.’

Source: Edmund de Waal, The White Road (London: Chatto & Windus, 2015), p. 330

Chest-stretchingly loud

I imagine this as taking an almighty intake of breath to be sure your Alpine horn is heard in the village on the other side of the valley.

Source: Edmund de Waal, The White Road (London: Chatto & Windus, 2015), p. 45

Linen-backed map

This evokes endless adventures, whether real or traced on a battered map on an old library table.   And it reminds me of the silk maps carried by servicemen in the Second World War.  Now, why doesn’t Hermes produce some of those for ladies’ scarves?   THAT would be glamorous.

Source: Edmund de Waal, The White Road (London: Chatto & Windus, 2015), p. 253

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