A handful of clay from a Chinese hillside carries a promise: that mixed with the right materials, it might survive the fire of the kiln, and fuse into porcelain — translucent, luminous, white. Acclaimed writer and potter Edmund de Waal sets out on a quest - a journey that begins in the dusty city of Jingdezhen in China and travels on to Venice, Versailles, Dublin, Dresden, the Appalachian Mountains of South Carolina and the hills of Cornwall to tell the history of porcelain. Along the way, he meets the witnesses to its creation; those who were inspired, made rich or heartsick by it, and the many whose livelihoods, minds and bodies were broken by this obsession. It spans a thousand years and reaches into some of the most tragic moments of recent times. Sweeping in scope The White Road is a mesmirising and finely wrought work. It is also a cautionary tale about the price of beauty pursued at any cost. I loved almost every word of de Waal's book.
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Edmund de Waal. The White Road: Journey into an Obsession. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, As de Waal spirited us through his porcelain adventures, made all the more gripping by his anecdotal style and often slightly unfocused but revelatory slides, initial attention turned to captivation, and by the end of the talk, all of us were leaning forward, on the edge of our chairs. I, an inveterate lecture attendee, declared it the best lecture I had ever heard on any subject and floated home, clutching my autographed copy of The White Road. It is written in a highly personal style: his use of words, while economical, is expressive and pictorial; his descriptions are remarkably visual; and he traverses the line between autobiography and biography the lives of the participants in the porcelain story with an interesting fluidity. The clay of porcelain is white, both before and after it is fired, but he needs to know more about this whiteness than just its chemistry and technicalities. Other things in the world are white, but for me, porcelain comes first.
That family is scattered across the globe and the way of life the coffee set embodied has vanished, but the dainty china pot and matching cups remain flawless. Porcelain is like that. We all know that the sweep of a careless elbow can shatter it into unmendable bits. But take some basic precautions and in a hundred years it will look as good as new — its colors undimmed, its whites snowy — after you and your children are dead and gone. It is fragile, and it is strong. Invented in China, about 1, years ago, porcelain is a ceramic made from a varying mixture of materials, the most indispensable of which is a whitish clay, kaolin. The city of Jingdezhen produced the most beautiful of these objects: bowls, jars, vases and other items created in vast quantities for the imperial court. Not so in Europe, where, for years after they laid eyes on it, no one knew how to make the stuff. A few years later, William Cookworthy, a mild-mannered Quaker apothecary living in Devon, noticed that the clay in a nearby Cornish hill resembled the kaolin described in newly published letters from China.