Sunday 11 December 2016

Books: Diamonds are forever... but so is porcelain

Non-Fiction: The White Road, Edmund de Waal, Chatto & Windus, hdbk, 416 pages, €29.50

Brian Lynch

Published 04/10/2015 | 02:30

Pot of gold: Edmund de Waal
Pot of gold: Edmund de Waal
Fonthill Vase

Our reviewer on how the new book from the ­author of 'The Hare With Amber Eyes' has a special connection with Dublin

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Edmund de Waal's The Hare With Amber Eyes was an outlandishly unlikely bestseller in 2010. How could a book about a collection of Japanese buttons sell over a million copies?

But the popularity is understandable. What happened to these 264 buttons, or netsuke, reads like a spiritual detective story.

The collection was once owned by de Waal's ancestors, a Jewish family in Vienna whose enormous wealth was confiscated by the Nazis. Its history before and after the Holocaust inspired de Waal to travel to a multiplicity of worldwide exotic locations and to write a classic tale of mystery and self-discovery.

The White Road follows the same format. This time the subject is porcelain. For de Waal, the material is both an obsession and a profession. He runs a small factory and has an international reputation as a maker of beautifully simple porcelain pots. Nowadays porcelain is as common as dirt - toilets are made from it. But there was a time when it was the Holy Grail of collectors.

Invented in China some 4,000 years ago, porcelain was almost unknown in Europe until the Renaissance. Back then it had magical significance. Andrea Mantegna, one of the greatest artists of the period, painted the Three Wise Men presenting the baby Jesus with a porcelain cup from China.

In the 18th century, largely due to reports from Jesuit missionaries, European princes went potty for Chinese porcelain. Augustus the Strong, the ruler of Dresden, for example, bought 151 Ming dynasty vases from the ruler of Berlin and paid for them not with money but with 600 of his soldiers.

It will come as a surprise to Irish readers that one of the world's rarest pieces of porcelain, the Fonthill Vase, is in the National Museum at Collins Barracks. De Waal describes visiting the "spectacularly empty" museum where he is granted the rare privilege of holding the rather ugly object in his hands.

He is so overcome that he is tempted to write the history of its journey along the Silk Road from China to the vast cathedral-like home of Sir William Beckford at Fonthill in Wiltshire. Beckford, the richest commoner in England and the author of Vathek, one of the first Gothic horror novels, was an early version of Oscar Wilde. Eventually his scandalous sexual tastes drove him out of society and into extreme eccentricity and solitude - he had, for example, 12 dinners cooked for him every day but ate only one. But de Waal resists the temptation to produce another history of rich people and their art collections. Referring to The Hare With Amber Eyes, he says, "good God, I'm not doing that again". Instead, the Fonthill Vase inspired him to concentrate his researches on the remarkable people, some of them geniuses, many of them nameless labourers, who sacrificed their lives to the production of what came to be known as "white gold".

Porcelain was valuable in the West partly because no one knew how to make it. Potters lacked the necessary clays, petunse and kaolin. And when they were found, as they were in Cornwall and South Carolina, no one knew how to fire the kilns to the necessary temperatures - above 1,200°C - without cracking the crockery. Eventually, a mad alchemist trying to make gold out of lead for Augustus the Strong managed the miracle. And thus Meissen pottery became famous. For all its fascination, the back-story of porcelain is often grim. Its purity is stamped with cruelty. Tyrants, like Hitler, Stalin and Mao, have always loved it. Himmler even had his own porcelain factory in Dachau concentration camp.

Porcelain also degraded the environment. When de Waal visits Jingdezehen, the porcelain capital of China, he finds a city of dust and snakes which an early traveller described as "one furnace with many vent holes of flame" where potters slaved for a thousand years to feed an insatiable market.

De Waal also visits Stoke-on-Trent, the capital of English porcelain production during the Industrial Revolution. The air then was so polluted by the smoke of factory chimneys that it was impossible to distinguish day from night. De Waal quotes from a Royal Commission report in 1842 the evidence of Hannah Lowton, aged six. For a shilling a week, Hannah started work at six in the morning and went home at nine o'clock at night. "I like to come to work," she said. But the dust and the heat had already killed her father. Uncountable thousands shared his fate.

Was the suffering worth it? De Waal can't answer that question. But in the process of turning thick brown mud into an immensely hard white substance through which, at its thinnest, light can pass, he discovers truths not just about himself but about our search for a perfection that will endure the passage of time. Diamonds are forever but so is porcelain - and it's human.

As a book, The White Road is not as accessible as The Hare With Amber Eyes but the thinking that informs it is denser and even more illuminating.

Brian Lynch is a member of Aosdána. His latest novel, The Woman Not The Name, is published by the Duras Press

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