White and Porcelain
What is Porcelain?
Porcelain is a material made through a combination of kaolin and petunse. Kaolin (china clay) is a silicate which causes the plasticity of the material. Pentuse (pottery stone) imbues porcelain with its translucent and hard qualities. Porcelain has been made for 1000 years, originating in China, and as avid user of porcelain Edmund de Waal said in The White Road, ‘Porcelain is China. Porcelain is the journey to China.’ The material was, and is, celebrated in China for its beauty and strength. Porcelain teacups are delightfully described as ‘bright moons cunningly carved and dyed with spring water’ in a poem from the Tang dynasty (618 to 907), indicating the otherworldly nature of porcelain.
The Origin of Porcelain in China
The explorer Marco Polo brought porcelain to Europe following his travels through Eurasia in the 14th Century. Polo called it porcellana, an Italian moniker for the cowry shell, because of the similarities in the shiny, white surface texture that porcelain shares. Because of the exotic origins of porcelain and its wonderful combination of durability and delicacy, the material was a mystery and became highly sought after in the West, a form of ‘white gold.’
Augustus II the Strong of Dresden, who transformed Dresden into a city of arts during the 18th Century, was obsessed with East Asian ceramics, with over 1,000 pieces in his collection. He had an alchemist called Johann Fredrich Böttger working for him to create porcelain. It is debated whether Böttger, or scientist Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, created the first Western porcelain, or even if it was English manufacturers.
The Relationship Between White and Porcelain
The whiteness of porcelain is fundamental to the way that is has been understood and desired. In China, white is representative of death and the end of life. In Moby Dick, Herman Melville writes; ‘In many natural objects, whiteness enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls.’
Porcelain is an unforgiving material that demands skill, as mistakes and errors are made evident in a way that other clays conceal. However, ceramicists who know how to manipulate the material are rewarded with luminous and strong pieces with exquisite thinness.
Porcelain Artists at Maud and Mabel
It is interesting to note how despite the wide range of styles that artists at Maud and Mabel display in their porcelain works, many embrace the milk white tones and refrain from further embellishment. Jae Jun Lee’s white porcelain vessels, which range from oil lamps to moon jars to sets of bowls, all display well-balanced forms and perfect finishes. In some of his work Jae Jun Lee works with porcelain with zirconium silicate, which is much whiter than white porcelain. This creates a distinction between the two white tones in his work, which he emphasizes without glaze; “I liked this calm division of colours. For this reason, I chose to polish parts of my work without the glazing stage and the other with it”.
Whilst Anna Silverton’s experiments with glazes result in works with subtly different colours and matt or glossy finishes, she throws all of her delicate and fine vases and bowls in porcelain on the wheel. She enjoys working with porcelain because of its throwing texture, which she exploits by stretching it to its limit. Anna crafts her larger pieces through cutting, reassembling and reshaping, accentuating each form with precise carved lines that delineate the segments. This results in elegant and playful white pieces, with egg-shell finishes to compliment the enticing tones.
Ditte Blohm is a Danish self-taught London ceramicist with a background in fine art and contemporary installation art. She was drawn to ceramics because of the slowness and contemplation provided by the medium. She is particularly drawn to white because of its enhancement of the shape and material of the piece and works primarily with porcelain. Ditte’s work is unique and intended to provoke a sensory experience in the user.
Explore More Porcelain Pieces
Visit our gallery and website to see more white porcelain pieces by celebrated ceramicists Inge Vincents and Masako Nakagami. You can also see the wonderful ways that Nicola Tassie and Tom Kemp add surface patterning to porcelain with iron inlay or paint. Artists working with porcelain at Maud and Mabel bring the ancient form of porcelain into contemporary forms.