Diary of a long year, Edmund de Waal, 2016. Image: Mike Bruce.

The white stuff

01.11.15. Crafts

‘Sorry I was getting quite irate in there. I really think, you know, that I haven’t sold my soul. I’m doing what I want to do. I’m very fortunate various large galleries and things have taken that up.’

It seems I might have inadvertently got under Edmund de Waal’s skin. The reason? A little over midway through our hour-long chat, I asked whether he felt he now stood slightly askance of the craft world. If he had, in effect, broken out of the craft ‘lagoon’ as Grayson Perry once described it by being profiled on BBC1 arts shows and even appearing on Desert Island Discs. I think it’s safe to say his response is emphatic.

‘No, I’m not askance of it,’ he tells me, barely pausing for breath. ‘At any moment I’m asked that, I will always celebrate craft. I really will. Craft is the great otherness in our culture. It’s little understood. It’s extraordinarily relevant and powerful. It goes deep into people’s lives. It’s catalytic. It changes the world. It reaches deep into unknown histories that we are only beginning to understand. It crosses identities and genders and ethnicities in incredibly powerful ways. So it’s in profound need of celebration and critical celebration. I talk about myself as a potter. I always do. I don’t care about what other people talk about me as. So I don’t believe in the lagoon. And I will always, always, always stand up and champion my early experiences: making things, making a mess, doing things at school, apprenticeships, keeping going the need for art colleges, and the strangeness of craft within a culture that wants to make everything glossy.’

It has to be said that as rants go this is by far the most polite and erudite I’ve ever encountered and, his point made, the interview resumes its previous rhythm. Ostensibly I’m sitting on the mezzanine level of his huge, and very white, studio deep in south-east London to talk about his new book, The White Road: a pilgrimage of sorts. Music is playing soothingly in the background. We sit opposite each other at his desk (being the middle-class English boys that we are, he offers me the most comfortable seat; I politely refuse to take it. We both end up in the uncomfortable chairs). Adjacent to us are stacks of books by the likes of Walter Benjamin and John Cage, while on the wall are a series of scribblings and arrows in green ink. I wonder how difficult it will be to clean off.

De Waal cuts a fascinating figure. Tall, wiry and kind of angular, he is an intriguing mix of ambition and angst. As we talk, he nervously fiddles with his collar or the sleeve of his navy blue cardigan that occasionally rides off his left shoulder. By the same token, he is an incredibly warm and forthcoming interviewee. Plus: he appears to be a formidable networker. I’ve been to an opening at his studio where the heads of two of the capital’s major museums were present, while the audience at a recent book signing at the Royal Academy featured the great and the good of the arts world, including John Tusa and Alan Yentob.

Although he has written several books more obviously aimed at the craft world in-between, The White Road is the de facto successor to his hugely successful The Hare with Amber Eyes. And like Hare, it is a journey – this time tracing the history of a material that has fascinated him since he was a child: porcelain. The obvious first question is whether he felt pressure to follow up his unexpected success with something similar?

‘No, I didn’t. I didn’t feel like I had to write it. And, in fact, it’s five years since The Hare with Amber Eyes. That took seven years and this was always a book I was going to find a way of writing. Nothing happens in a hurry. There wasn’t pressure. I didn’t feel pressure to write anything else. This is about as personal as it could be.’

However, he is happy to admit that it’s scarier than last time. ‘They published 5,000 copies for the first issue of The Hare with Amber Eyes and this time it’s 50,000 copies for the first edition. It’s a big increase. The reviewers will be gunning for me. It’s all very well being a potter who writes a book and everyone is surprised you can actually fashion proper sentences. But suddenly you’re in a different league. So can you really write? Of course there’s more scrutiny. That’s not a bad thing. Everything should get shaken down and looked at properly. It just happens to be happening to me at the moment.’ (As Crafts was going to press The White Road was garnering a genuinely mixed reception. A.N. Wilson in the FT loved it, The Observer’s Rachel Cooke found it irritating.)

De Waal has a singular way of telling history. Hare’s success was built on the intimacy of a family’s collection of tiny netsuke being juxtaposed with an epic, sweeping story of their travails across the history of a Europe in ferment. It was intricately researched, yet, at the same time it felt deeply personal. The White Road tries to pull off a similar trick. As he winds his way across time and topography, de Waal presents shards of his own process in writing the book (at times it feels a little like John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman) as well as moments from his back-story and his own relationship with porcelain – all alongside the extraordinary, and often destructive, history behind the search for white gold through the ages. It gives the book a strangely staccato rhythm, something the author did deliberately.

‘It’s much more exploratory in terms of technique and structure than the last one,’ he says. It also wears its intelligence very much on its sleeve. Readers are expected to keep up with de Waal, rather than be lead by the nose. ‘I think there’s something deadly about omniscient art historians telling you something they know,’ he says. ‘I spent a life thinking about porcelain but I didn’t know it. I knew bits of it. It was a journey of genuine discovery, of finding the people and places who I need to understand and then going to journals and poetry and narrative and topography and objects. Of course it means it ends up fragmented and broken up. And it weaves that into my own autobiography of learning how to be a potter, learning how to be a public potter. It meant that it had to be a patchwork, not a seamless narrative.’

Our eyes turn to his graffitied wall. ‘There’s a whole wall there of structure and notes. The finding of structure, it’s the same with making installations. You know when you’ve found the structure that has some lucidity.’ As a result The White Road contains 66 short chapters. ‘I was thinking about installations. I was thinking about shards. I was thinking about broken things, the spaces between things... The structure of this and the pacing of this comes out of a lot of making. The new way of making with more space between objects.’

To prove de Waal’s post-Hare cultural reach, he will be going multi-media in November. Inevitably there’s a website to accompany the book but there’s also a show in the library of the Royal Academy, titled white, where he’s identified 42 objects, paintings and books that illustrate, as he writes in the introduction, ‘different ways into white, different questions of what white does to the world around it’. And he’s also joined forces with the Aurora Orchestra to create three events across the capital, including the performance of a new piece composed by Martin Suckling, which ‘explores the role of white in the world’.

When we meet, de Waal has yet to hear the new piece, but says of the collaboration: ‘They are really crossing over between poetry and performance and art. And that seems to be really natural. I’m amazed it doesn’t happen more often because making is very close to music.’ How so? ‘It’s obviously performative. There’s a sense in which you make music and you make art. For me, there’s also the thing that my installations are a bit like scores – they have pulses and rhythms and repetitions and gaps. So it is frozen music for me.’

Away from the capital, he also has a show opening at the New Art Centre at Roche Court, a venue he has been working with since 2004. The Lost and Found comprises work he originally made for an exhibition for the Pier Art Centre in collaboration with artist David Ward on Orkney and was inspired directly by the island’s history and landscape.

‘David and I have been friends for a long time and wanted to collaborate,’ he says. ‘We were trying to think of places that mattered to us a lot. I’ve spent time in the north-west of Scotland and David knows Orkney very well. So he persuaded me that I should fall in love with Orkney, which is very easy to do. The light is unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been but the sense of time is utterly bizarre. I’ve never been in a landscape that’s so saturated by so long ago. Increasingly I just do projects in places that I really want to understand and spend time in. Place, it seems to me, is really compelling,’ he explains.

Place plays a key role in The White Road. I was intrigued by de Waal’s writing of his move to Sheffield from the Herefordshire countryside in his mid-20s and his move from working in stoneware to porcelain. It seems like the pivotal moment in his career. ‘It was such a big break for me,’ he agrees. ‘That idea of shedding the rural thing and setting off to be a grown-up, really. I wanted to be in a place where people worked. And that’s an irony because Sheffield had catastrophic unemployment. So it was a very peculiar and difficult time to be in the city. It was very grim. Why make pots? It’s the most ridiculous, redundant, pointless thing to do. No one wants pots in the city. They want jobs. But I was trying to work at who I was and what it was to be working by yourself, making something that had some value. I realise that if I’d stayed up my mountainside in Herefordshire, I’d probably still be there. There was a zone of safety that I needed to get out of.’

I wonder whether it was this refusal to allow himself to feel comfortable, to constantly be on the intellectual move, that led him to write his controversial book reassessing Bernard Leach in 1997. ‘I hadn’t realised quite how upset people were going to be,’ he says. ‘But I needed to do it. And I’ve never been worried about reactions. I just don’t think you can. It was an attempt to create conversation. To find histories that have been lost; to reveal ambiguities where there were certainties. I’m not Leach. I’m really not trying to police bits of history. All my ceramics books are attempts to look again at the landscape... But there’s no dogma attached to them. There really isn’t. And being disliked? I think that comes with the territory.’ Behind the hesitant charm lies a thick skin, you fancy.

So, I wonder, aware that my allotted time is coming to a close, has peeling the layers back on his material of choice changed the way he feels about porcelain? ‘White has always been quite complicated for me,’ he replies. ‘It’s an aesthetic complexity – something to do with trying to sort something out about beauty and purity and what white does spacially. But I think what the book did was just reveal the flipside of that. The obsessional demand for purity. An attempt at purity has an incredibly painful, complex, destructive element to it. That’s the theme that gathers momentum in the book. You have a more ambivalent relationship with the material. It’s still compelling but it has become more complex. This last five or six years white has become even darker. Am I allowed to say that?’ Yes, Edmund, of course you are.

white, a project by Edmund de Waal was at the Royal Academy, London W1J 0BD, 26 September 2015 –  3 January 2016. The White Road: a pilgrimage of sorts by Edmund de Waal was published by Chatto & Windus