As we speak, Edmund de Waal, ceramicist and writer, moves his palms continually over the surface of the trestle table in his studio. he makes wide, flat waves in circular motions, as though he were smoothing it or wiping it clean.
At times his hands curl into knots that knead the top of the wood. he is certainly emphatic – and there are tensions behind much of what he says; he is both strained by and earnest in his desire to make people actively ‘look’ at, not merely ‘see’ his work.
The publication in 2010 of The Hare with Amber Eyes – his family memoir tracing the collection of 264 netsuke from fin-de-siècle Paris to the Palais Ephrussi in Vienna to Tokyo – propelled de Waal into the public eye. his renown as an artist is quieter though no less prestigious – he was appointed a Trustee of the V&A Museum and awarded an OBE for his services to art in 2011, and made a senior fellow at the Royal College of Art in June 2012. He has recently delivered lectures, participated in a panel discussion with Simon Schama and attended a screening of a film that documents the last year in his studio. De Waal insists that against all this activity and public engagement, his main sense of purpose derives from simply ‘making things’.
De Waal has been making things since a pottery apprenticeship in 1981 with his tutor, Geoffrey Whiting, a pupil of the school of Bernard Leach. His education in ceramics continued in Japan and while his aesthetic remains sublimely simple, he has begun to create works with a more visible presence in the art world – such as Signs & Wonders, a permanent piece installed in the atrium of the V&A in 2009. Forty metres above the entrance, 450 monochrome ceramics sit on a red lacquer shelf that runs the circumference of the ceiling dome, arranged in rhythmical groupings; each inspired by one of the museum’s major ceramics collections. Of the work, de Waal says, ‘It’s not modest, but it’s different.’
After we talk, he will visit his recent gallery show, A Thousand Hours, at the Alan Cristea Gallery, for the last time before it closes. he has recently installed his first piece of public sculpture, a local history, at the new Alison Richard Building at the University of Cambridge. Future projects include an exhibition with the Chinese porcelain collections at the Fitzwilliam Museum in February 2013, more gallery shows and, of course, a new book.
QThe White Review — In a recent ‘sermon’ on the subject of tact you mentioned that you grew up listening to Leonard Cohen in a bedroom at the end of a hallway of medieval portraits. One can see a similar juxtaposition of styles – a reverence for antiquity against enigmatic and poetic pieces – in the installation of your work at Waddesdon Manor. You’ve called this setting an ‘ersatz french chateau’ and an ‘extraordinary calling card’ where ‘everything is gilded’. How did you want people to experience your work in that space?
AEdmund de Waal — Almost everything to do with my pieces is about slowing down. Walking through that house, because of the wealth that surrounds you, you’re eyeing everything very quickly and the way you actually move through rooms can be overwhelming. Amid the enchantment is the attempt to slow things down.
QThe White Review — To prompt people to look in the crevices where they might not have done?
AEdmund de Waal — Yes. The act of ‘looking’ is absolutely about identifying all of the very peculiar, different types of spaces which you can use, because we have very conventional assumptions about where objects should sit. In the case of Waddesdon, it’s very much about bringing your attention down or up or in, or around corners – to the surroundings.
QThe White Review — In The Hare with Amber Eyes, you describe your inheritance from a Jewish banking dynasty, the Ephrussi family of financiers. The elaborate set-up at Waddesdon has parallels with the house on the Ringstraße in Vienna once owned by your family. Did you find yourself drawing similarities between what your pots were doing in certain rooms in Waddesdon and your imaginings, in the book, of the tiny details of your great-grandmother Emmy’s dressing room in which the cabinet of netsuke was kept?
AEdmund de Waal — Yes, walking into Waddesdon Manor was absolutely like walking into the Palais Ephrussi, the two buildings are exactly the same date. The sheer amount of visual material, the abundance of gilded decoration, and the sense of one layer laid on top of another, it’s absolutely the same. I was trying to re-occupy Waddesdon in a quite polemical way, but in a personal way as well.
QThe White Review — The Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor comes from a tradition of members of the Jewish diaspora becoming prominent collectors of Dutch and French painting, and Sèvres pottery. Did it feel like a clichéd narrative to show there? Do you think that your ceramic works – quietly arresting because of the ‘gilded’ abundance in which they are inserted – perform a similar role to that of the netsuke in the Palais?
AEdmund de Waal — Well, it was a dangerous kind of project because you don’t want to make things which fit in too well, which feel too ‘at home’. Otherwise it would become set dressing. It wasn’t about that. It was much more about trying to identify places where you can interrogate particular ideas about collecting, such as boxes that can be packed up, things that you can see and not see, things that are scattered – like the five singular ‘promises’ – and one pair of vitrines in the Tower Room, called ‘something else, somewhere other’.
I try to make things that are beautiful. I’m very open about that. The idea of something being site-specific, or site-sensitive, or being in conversation with its surroundings, is interesting, but you have to have the guts – you have to have enough chutzpah – to move away as well, to allow your installation to be of itself and not just disappear completely.