Well, it has only taken me about 18 months but at last I have found the time to enjoy reading Edmund de Waal’s book The White Road. I am glad that I have waited until the right moment as I have been able to indulge myself with soaking up de Waal’s palpable enthusiasm for the subject of porcelain without feeling rushed.
I have had the time and the peace to read most of the book whilst invigilating our exhibition at Fountain Gallery which has its final day today. Now this says something about the number of sales and visitors to the gallery and begs questions about self invigilated shows. (Thank goodness for Tregony Gallery which cheerfully goes on selling my work without me putting in an appearance). But that aside, the luxury of reading a well written book about the porcelain story has been a delight.
There are three lasting impressions from reading this book. First is the extraordinary excesses which those with money and power went to in the past. When Augustus the Strong of Saxony died in 1733 he had a collection of 35,798 pieces of porcelain (de Waal, 2015). Secondly of the heightened emotions which the efforts to create ‘white gold’ in Europe seemed to invoke. The alchemists searching for the formula for creating gold from base metals and also how to make white gold spent decades working in intolerable conditions, imprisoned and forced to experiment over and over again until they struck success (de Waal 2015). Thirdly the wonder with which people have always perceived this material. De Waal describes the first makings of English porcelain by William Cockworthy as an obsession;
” To make something so white and true and perfect, that the world around it is thrown into shadows as the blackthorn does when flowering in the hedgerows in early spring.” (de Waal, 2015, p.225).
Oh my goodness, I get that one! When I open the kiln and there it is: a crisp, thin, translucent vessel with a pure, creamy whiteness. It is a kind of alchemy if you ask me!
I recently went to Edmund de Waal’s exhibition at the Royal Academy. I am not sure what I was expecting but I but I found myself to be really rather overawed by the experience. It was quite a small exhibition and I think that this gave it an intimacy which added to the enjoyment.
Perhaps it was the subdued lighting and the sense of history of the setting which provided such a special atmosphere. The library has never been used for an exhibition before and so there was a feeling of having been invited into a private part of the Academy; that you were no longer just the general public. We were the only people there for most of the time and, with a very informative and interesting security man, we toured the exhibition learning a lot about the library and feeling very privileged.
Because I don’t look very carefully at all the blurb which the RA sends me through the post, I think I had assumed that the exhibition was about de Waal more than by de Waal. I had not expected to see such a diverse collection of work. There was his Hare with Amber Eyes – I have only just got round to reading the book and so I was extraordinarily emotional about seeing this exquisite beauty so soon afterwards. How wonderful that, after all this piece has seen, it has made it to such a hallowed location, even on a temporary basis. There also were a number of de Waal’s own pieces lighting up dark corners of the library with the stunning translucence of porcelain. But how amazing to be invited to think about the works of composer John Cage and a pure white Meissen beaker during the same afternoon.
I am a dead ringer for collections of similar, very simple things and so I love the idea of a group of white objects. I also go floppy at the knees when I real things such as the opening paragraph of the exhibition blurb: ‘White is an aura. White is a staging post to look at the word from. White is not neutral; it forces other colours to reveal themselves. It moralises – it is clean when nothing else is clean, it is light when most things are heavy. It is political. It is enmeshed in the world’. Yes, it is!