a short history of the China trade

In this film, Edmund de Waal talks about his GAC commission to create a new porcelain work for the Ambassador’s Residence in Beijing. De Waal is renowned for his hand-thrown porcelain often, as here, produced as white vessels ordered on white shelves and displayed in groups inside a glass vitrine. The GAC were especially keen to work with de Waal in this location as porcelain originates in China and the artist’s fascination with the material, the country itself and its long history of trading in porcelain, meant there was a natural connection to the Beijing Residence. Filmmaker Jared Schiller interviewed de Waal in July 2016, shortly before the work was installed in the Residence.

a short history of the China trade

© Crown Copyright

  • Select Image
  • Select Image

De Waal has written this description of a short history of the China trade:

This is my very personal mapping of the thousand years of porcelain trade – the way in which China reached the rest of the world. It is a series of small porcelain vessels and dishes arranged on shelves and protected within a glass vitrine. It includes many celadons – the very beautiful blue-green glazes that epitomise Chinese porcelain. Here is the celadon of Marco Polo’s vase in Venice – the first piece to arrive in the West – the colours of deep Imperial stem-cups. Here are all the whites – the whites of vessels for Buddhist ritual, the aspirational colours that Europe couldn’t get and strived for, until they broke the secrets of the Arcanum. There is gold here too. Both porcelain as ‘white gold’, the most precious of materials, and also on the broken shards of a vessel, referencing the way in which gold is used to mend broken porcelain in China and Japan.

The installation is also a series of repetitions – one attempt after another to make porcelain, one cargo after another of porcelain to reach the West.

I feel very honoured that a short history of the China trade will be installed in the British Ambassador’s Residence in Beijing, in a place on the threshold of where people come and depart. This piece is above all about the ebb and flow of trade, of ideas, of objects, of beliefs, and of images.

Porcelain itself and its association with China are the subject of de Waal’s book The White Road (2015) which includes an account of his visit to Jingdezhen in China, known as the ‘Porcelain Capital’ because it has been producing pottery for 1,700 years. De Waal has been working with porcelain for over 25 years and sees it as ‘a beautiful pure material all about China, Chinese culture and Chinese trade’. With its long history, de Waal felt porcelain forms a bridge between the UK and China and that this pure material –’somewhere between clay and glass’ – tells a poetic resonant story that spoke not just to emperors but ordinary workers as everyone in China uses porcelain. De Waal also explained how in China broken objects are mended with gold – it is the brokenness that makes them special – and for him porcelain is profoundly attractive when it goes wrong as he is ‘not remotely interested in making the perfect object’.

As a writer, de Waal sees the titles of his works as very important and a short history of the China trade is a deliberate if ‘quiet nod to the generative, generous relationship between the UK and China’.

Edmund de Waal is an artist and writer. After graduating from Trinity College Cambridge, de Waal set up a pottery kiln, only beginning to experiment with porcelain after moving to Sheffield in the late 1980s. In 1990 he was awarded a Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation Scholarship.

De Waal’s work has been exhibited throughout the UK and internationally, with recent exhibitions at Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (2016), Kunsthaus Graz, Graz (2016), Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin (2016), Gagosian Gallery, Beverley Hills (2016); Royal Academy, London (2015) and Turner Contemporary, Margate (2014).  Recent installations have included Lichtzwang (2014) in the Theseus Temple, Vienna, and another hour at Southwark Cathedral, London (2014). Permanent public works are An idea (for the journey), Rijksmuseum (2013), a local history (2012), University of Cambridge, Signs & Wonders, Victoria and Albert Museum, London (2009) and a sounding line at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire (2007).

The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), de Waal’s family memoir, has won many literary prizes and his second book, The White Road was published in 2015. He was made an OBE for his services to art in 2011 and is a Senior Fellow of the Royal College Art and Honorary Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

Edmund de Waal’s a short history of the China trade was commissioned from the artist in 2016 with the generous support of Rosamund Brown in memory of her husband, Charles H Brown; The Rothschild Foundation; The Sackler Trust and with assistance from Madeleine Bessborough, New Art Centre.