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!
This week I have been in Portugal. I opted for the´sudden immersion´ approach to the City. It is some while since I have travelled in a foreign city alone and so I was quite relieved to have adequately navigated the mysteries of the Lisbon Metro, successfully coping with the ticketing system and the map and emerging into the light for the first time at the Cais do Sodré on the banks of the River Tagus in the middle of the city.
It is exciting after the impersonal , non-nationality specific aura of airport and international hotel to ‘Arrive’. To feel, for the first time, the light and the atmosphere of a different place. I love the assault on the senses which comes from such an approach. Here was bright light and the smell of the River and the Atlantic. A busker was playing classical guitar in the square and, in the market, there was every conceivable type of fruit and vegetable. Hams, wrapped in muslin, hung from long rails. Fish gazed, glassy-eyed from beds of ice. The smell of spices was intoxicating!
I wandered, without direction, up narrow cobbled streets dodging trams and Tuk-tuk and gazing up at tall terraces of buildings in a multitude of colours. But what struck me most was the ceramics. Many buildings were clad, at least in part, in beautifully decorated tiles.
This is the Portuguese way of protecting their buildings from the elements: Azulejo cover almost every flat surface and the impact is incredible!
Many buildings are clad in tiles to protect them from the elements.
Later I walked along the river to the National Tile Museum to learn more. The museum is housed in an ancient monastery and I had difficulty focussing on one thing because there is so much to see. The architecture of the building is old and beautiful, the tiles range from sixteenth century to very contemporary and the tea room served some of the best Pastel de Nata (custard tarts) I was able to find! The second floor is given over to one enormous mural of Lisbon, part of the museum is given over to an explanation of the making of Portuguese Azulejo through the ages, and in the cloisters, a group of children were decorating their own tiles under the watchful eye of a curator.
This museum is less well frequented than others in the city because it is not so easy to get to but I made it my fist port of call and I was so glad that I had – it is a treasure!