Dotted among the weighty tomes of the Royal Academy’s Print Room and Library is a collection of seemingly random white artworks. One is a prototype of a porcelain table by Amanda Levete; another a 1920s teapot by Kazimir Malevich; and there’s a two-handled teacup and saucer, made c. 1720 in Meissen. It’s Edmund de Waal’s most treasured piece of porcelain, and one of the 40 objects selected by the British artist for a show entitled ‘White’. ‘It’s translucent, weighs almost nothing and took 20 years to make’, he says. ‘It sums up all the agonies of working with porcelain and it made the pilgrimage worth it.’
The 'pilgrimage' he’s referring to is the subject of his latest book, The White Road: a pilgrimage of sorts, which is an exploration of porcelain though the ages. De Waal spent years travelling from Jingdezhen in China to Venice, Versailles, even Dachau concentration camp, hunting out people who share his obsession with the material. He trekked up the Appalachian mountains with his son in search of the white clay once used by the Cherokee Indians and will be the first potter to use it since Josiah Wedgwood, who sent an expedition to excavate it 200 years ago.
De Waal made three new works for the show, and after writing The White Road still professes a love for porcelain that has, if anything, deepened. ‘I can’t imagine not loving it. It’s just that the love gets more complicated. Writing the book, I went to some grim and difficult places in history.’ (Himmler deployed slave labour from Dachau to produce porcelain artworks for the Nazis between 1935–1945.) ‘It feels like a compromised material, but then it would, as anything that tries to be pure brings difficulty with it.’
Admirers of de Waal’s writing will also be pleased to find in the library another of the artist’s most treasured objects – The Hare With Amber Eyes. De Waal’s first book of the same name brought ancient Japanese netsuke back to life. He hopes that The White Road will do the same for all those ‘totally forgotten people who have been though what I’ve been through. To me, anyway, they are not dead.’