We are pleased to present an excerpt from The White Road, Edmund de Waal’s enchanting account of a life spent in porcelain and the grip the white clay has on all those who seek to know its secret. De Waal is one of the world’s leading ceramic artists and the bestselling author of The Hare with Amber Eyes.
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It is three in the morning again in Jingdezhen, China. I try and count pots. This is what I do to get to sleep. Because I’m here I count all the bowls and lidded jars and dishes that I’ve made to emulate Chinese porcelains, the ginger jars and the celadon tea bowls and wine cups, and the large dishes with the pairs of fishes, head to tail, that I made as wedding presents. The bodged, earnest attempt to make pots that had some of the ease, deftness and poise of the most basic bowl from this city. To make myself into a potter through my attachment to Chinese pots.
My tally comes to nothing, scant thousands amongst this roiling sea of objects.
I try and count my childhood pots and my apprenticeship pots and
the pots that I made on my own in my first independent workshop on the Welsh Borders. I moved there straight from university. I was setting out, I was twenty-one.
I count my Herefordshire pots.
Herefordshire is green on green, lichen on old apple branches, ivy in the woods, the rot in the floorboards. A mile away from my workshop was a cottage where an old woman left for the workhouse a generation ago. The stream comes under the door. There are rags in the windows. This feels about right. On the walk up the hill behind the house, scrambling over the fence next to the old oak, and then up the pitch scarified by sheep tracks, your eyes on the steep ground until you get to the hedge line, hawthorn and brambles, when you turn and get the whole landscape of hills unfolded to the Black Mountains, five miles away across the border in Wales. There are a thousand gradations of damp underfoot. There are a pair of buzzards above the copse. There has been a badger here: the red earth is churned.
My friends were in London with jobs, writing, partying, getting on with careers and affairs, and I was making dishes, unglazed, rough oat- meal brown on the outside, and green on the inside, pots to disappear into the landscape. No one bought them. No one liked them. This is usually an artist’s trope—as in no one liked them except, say, Peggy Guggenheim—but in my case they were genuinely unlikeable because they had that killer factor for objects. They were needy. And once you recognise neediness in an object, it is difficult to live with. The fluidity of your life with it curdles.
They wanted to change their users, not just make you feel better as you poured your milk in the morning, spooned marmalade from the jar on to your toast, but be a better person. I felt this was the quietist approach to making pots, stealthily changing lives through balanced handles, grounding people through giving objects an appropriate weight, valuing the everyday. Why stand out when you could disappear? But my pots stood out in their quietness, mumbling really loudly, clutching.
I thought Chinese pots were quiet. I lie in my small room transfixed by embarrassment, by that earnest gaucherie of thirty years ago. Dear God, I thought Chinese pots were simple. And I had so deeply absorbed the mantra of truth to materials that I hadn’t noticed that the materials I was trying so hard to be true to were highly specific. And odd. Making these pots out of this stoneware clay, glazing them so doggedly with this midwinter palette of browns and greys and moss-greens was an exercise in attempting to get belief off the ground. If I could keep it going then I wouldn’t notice that I was channelling an aesthetic from fifty years ago.
There is a moment when the idea that something is a vocation becomes so internalised that you end up a priest, a potter, a poet, and you are just too embarrassed to walk away. And you get caught. There is a bit in T. S. Eliot’s The Confidential Clerk where Sir Claude Mulhammer, the old financier, confesses that he always wanted to be a potter, but failed from family pressure and anxiety: ‘Could a man be said to have a vocation / To be a second-rate potter?’
My workshop was an old barn. I bought the wheels, ware boards, sieves and buckets from a failed pottery, too young to notice their relief as I counted out the £1000 that I had saved, £20 note by £20 note. And I bought their old kiln bricks and spent a long summer building my own kiln, sawing a wooden former to create the arch of the kiln-chamber, trying to work out how high a chimney should be to create the pull of air to make the temperatures work. The local blacksmith made me metal ties to keep the structure together and soldered blowtorches to make basic burners for the propane gas I was to use for fuel. This came in tall and unwieldy orange canisters.
My kiln looked like a small chapel. I’d crawl inside to stack my pots on the three shelves at the back and two at the front, then brick up the front wall, leaving a couple of gaps as spyholes, light the gas so the flame roared into the kiln, fiddle with the air vents, the pressure gauges, the bricks at the chimney mouth.
There are electric kilns, which are like big cookers. You switch them on and they heat up and they click off. They can go wrong, but their wrongness is quite pedestrian. You can see the mistakes. And then there are kilns which use wood or coal or gas to produce the heat through fire. And this brings a different level of unpredictability.
I hated it. Over fifteen, eighteen, twenty hours, I’d try and nurse the kiln towards a heat that would make my glazes melt, the colour of the clay change from grey. Firings scared me. The intensity of the fire, the knowledge of just how badly I’d built the kiln, the sound of the kiln straining, the need for this firing to work to make up for the last months, the malevolent lick of flame over my gloves as I pulled out test rings. I knew so little. I’d watch the colour of the kiln change from reds to oranges to yellow to a searing white. I was by myself.
And my Herefordshire tally comes to forty-two firings over two and a half years. Twelve total failures. Twenty mostly wrong and ten OK. So 2,500 pots out to sell, a few hundred chucked from the kiln mouth over the hedge into the stream. A couple of thousand or so broken up for shards. And a pathetic income. Soup bowls were £2.50 each. My girlfriend Sue in London bought a huge black pitcher. That was £12, full cost as she insisted on no discount.
I needed to leave. I needed to find somewhere cheap and far away. This led me to Sheffield.
It was 1988 and the city was in a terrible way after a decade of decline in steel, the miners’ strike. The city centre was full of boarded-up shops. In Page Hall, a hill of back-to-back terraced houses on the edges of Attercliffe where the last steelworks were being demolished, I found a house and workshop that had been used as a carpenter’s shop. 128 Robey Street was the end of the road. Beyond was Wincobank, a hill of scrub and burnt-out cars. From the top you looked across the cooling towers to the M1 and Rotherham.
It was skinny at the front with a door that no one used, but round the back was a yard with a two-storey outbuilding, a raddled floor and a capsized roof, but enough space to build a kiln and make pots. My neighbours were mostly Bangladeshi, one generation in, with a seam of
old white Sheffielders to put me right on tea and politics and geography.
I rented a van and loaded it with my potter’s wheel, and kiln bricks and clay and my books, and left Herefordshire. I was going to be an urban potter. I painted the floors of my house white, built my bookshelves out of pine planks and bricks and put my futon on the floor. I lived, I felt, in bohemian splendour, a tin chandelier in the kitchen and an old steamer trunk of my grandmother’s for my clothes, but at almost thirty years’ distance I see the squalor more than the bohemia. When I was burgled they took a metal bench for scrap and my stereo and two Hiroshige prints. Everything else, all the shelves of ceramics, shelves of Japanese tea bowls, my Hogarth print of The The Distrest Poet, wig askew, dog stealing the bone from his dusty garret, were untouched.
I knew no one. This was a place chosen because I knew no one. I got to work. As I was starting again, I chose white.
I ordered three bags of porcelain.
The very first pot I made at the end of this steep hill was a porcelain jar. It was an attempt to make a mallet jar, a kinuta, a form made in the Sung Dynasty and then revived periodically. It is a beautiful shape based on a mallet that you might use to beat cloth, a flared rim from a long neck that emerges from a swelled body.
The porcelain was sticky. It wouldn’t draw up. I’d wanted to make a porcelain jar that floated, but this felt like being twelve again, in a school uniform with an apron, Geoffrey watching from his wheel as pot after pot folded under my touch, returning me to failure.
My jar was a few inches high, and heavy. I glazed it white.
I was twenty-four. Wayne and Ricky, brothers of twelve and ten from the next street, came around on the first day, looking for jobs, curious. They helped me unload the van. What’s it all about? It was a very good question to ask anyone. It is a very good question to ask. It is dawn in Jingdezhen when I start to count my Sheffield pots.
Edmund de Waal is one of the world’s leading ceramic artists, and his porcelain is held in many major museum collections. His bestselling memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes has been published in thirty languages and won the Costa Biography Award and the RSL Ondaatje Prize. It was shortlisted for the Duff Cooper Prize, the Jewish Quarterly Wingate Prize, the PEN/Ackerley Prize and the Southbank Sky Arts Award for Literature, and longlisted for the Orwell Prize and BBC Samuel Johnson Prize. He lives in London with his family.
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