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Lucy Theobald, Press Coordinator, Fitzwilliam Museum

During his time as an undergraduate in Cambridge, Edmund de Waal was inspired by the ceramics he saw at the Fitzwilliam and Kettles Yard.  The Fitzwilliam’s vast vitrines of porcelain were life-changing for him; his current intervention here tells their stories, following porcelain’s evolution from China to Europe.

This crystal white millennium-old material has been the basis for the finest ceramic wares in history; the blue and white patterns of Ming Dynasty vases, the gold laced delicacy of intricate Meissen, and Victorian high-tea would not have been the same without china teacups.  But this beautiful, tactile material has a dark and chequered history.  It was one of the greatest treasures of the Chinese Emperors and for centuries its trade secrets were jealously guarded.

The centre and birthplace of porcelain production in China was Jingdezhen.  The city had rich deposits of kaolin, the white mineral clay essential for creating dazzling ceramics.  In the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD) the city came under Imperial control; as the official supplier of the Emperors, huge orders of porcelain were demanded to adorn their palaces and vast porcelain jars created to awe and impress.  ‘Rejects’ were smashed and the shards can still be seen today.  During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) the pure white ceramic began to emerge in Europe, traded through the Silk Road and over-sea through Portuguese and then Dutch merchants.  Paper thin and mirror bright, it was immediately coveted by princes and magnates across Europe and a race began to see who could uncover the secret to its production.

In the 1700s in China, European espionage was underway in the ever more industrious city of Jingdezhen.  From under the very noses of the master potters a French Jesuit priest, Francois Xavier d’Entrecolles, travelled to Jingdezhen, under the guise of counseling recent converts.  Through them in 1712 he discovered the secrets to Chinese porcelain production.

Today porcelain is still a major industry in China, and in the past three centuries its European manufacture has continued to evolve.  In his intervention Edmund de Waal has created a dialogue between his own contemporary pieces and historic porcelain works.  Some of the incredible stories from the past are alluded to in letters, writing and through the pieces themselves.

But above all you are invited to simply appreciate the beauty and poetry of porcelain in all its forms; its stillness and never ending shades of white.

Edmund de Waal On White: Porcelain Stories from the Fitzwilliam

On display until 23 February 2014