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Spring 2016

On the Miniature

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Edmund de Waal

Three very short views of the misfortune of porcelain. Three lives in miniature.


Daniel Defoe is furious with Queen Anne and her love of porcelain. She collects blue-and-white with avidity. “The Queen brought in the Custom or Humour as I may call it, of furnishing houses with China-ware which increased to a strange degree afterwards, piling their China upon the Tops of Cabinets Scrutores and every Chymney-Piece to the tops of the Ceilings and even setting up Shelves for their China-ware, where they wanted such Places, till it became a grievance in the Expence of it and even injurious to their Families and Estates.”

Defoe gets cross about lots of things.

He has some knowledge of clay: he is the owner of a failing tile-works in the Essex marshes, put out of business by the Dutch. No one remembers Defoe’s tiles. Grievance is a good word.


There is a potter in Bovey Tracey, a very small town in Devon. He is called Nicholas Crisp. He has a wife and three daughters.

Crisp has problems.

A visitor to his workshop is unimpressed. “When I came the kiln was burning, and some promising samples were drawn, but for the last twelve hours they advanced not a lot in point of heat and were short of fire after a burning continued for 43 hours… Our potter is a poor fireman.”

And quite frankly it is a tip. Long brick outhouses, tiled roofs that give up halfway along the ridge, no glass in the windows but half-hearted shutters that bang in the westerly wind. It is, writes the greatest potter of the age, Josiah Wedgwood, “but a poor trifling concern, & conducted in a wretched slovenly manner.”

Crisp has form. He has been a goldsmith with a jewelry business at Cornhill, bought a long licence on a soap rock mine on Lord Falmouth’s lands, established a “manufactory of china” in Vauxhall, and invested substantially in a cobalt mine in the Ochil Hills in Scotland. Each stage of his progress has been luridly illuminated by announcements of discoveries, by the possibility of great successes, by the patronage of persons of note, by pamphlets.

He has been arrested for appropriating money from a dissenting meeting house, for failing to discharge obligations, for bankruptcy. “Obsconded” is written in judgment. He is dogged by creditors and has fled to the West Country, writing in the London Evening Post that a “considerable manufacture of English porcelain is going to be established in a cheap country, a few miles West of Exeter.”

I know this man, I think, the serial bankrupt, leaving a chain of damaged people in his choppy wake. Bluff and irrepressible, his friends say. A shit, say his creditors. He is “a misfortune” and “Nothing will be recovered.”

He dies in 1774 leaving three daughters and a widow.

Wedgwood passes by the workshop and offers judgment: “A Mr Crisp endeavoured to make a kind of porcelain here, but did little more than make some experiments and these unsuccessfully… Crisp—poor Crisp—haunts my imagination Continually—Ever persuing—Just upon the point of overtaking, but never in possession of his favourite subject! There are a good many lessons in the poor Man’s life…”

And, looking at Crisp’s porcelain, “I never saw but two pieces of all their productions but was smoked.”


A French nobleman, Louis-Leon-Felicite, Duc de Brancas and Comte de Lauraguais, has written a tragedy—Clytemnestra—and political pamphlets questioning the divine right of kings. He is interested in inoculation and porcelain.

In 1780 he is in Birmingham chivvying Erasmus Darwin. He “offere’d the secret of making the finest old China as cheap as your Pots,” Darwin reports to Wedgwood.

He says the materials are in England. That the secret has cost him 16 000£. That he will sell it for (2000). He is Man of Science, dislikes his own Country, was six months in the Bastile for speaking against the Government, loves the English…he is not an Imposter. I suspect his scientific Passion is stronger than perfect Sanity…

The Comte de Lauraguais has been pushing hard for a patent for porcelain. His attention moves on. He writes a new tragedy, Jocasta. He argues for actors to wear costumes historically appropriate to the subject matter of the play.

I go and see this French nobleman’s beautiful plate in the Victoria and Albert Museum, with its insouciant butterfly barely able to make it across the pearly French porcelain sky.

Edmund de Waal, a potter who lives in London, is the author of The Hare with Amber Eyes and The White Road.

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