Interpreting Ceramics | issue 12 | 2010

Articles & Reviews

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Book Review by Michael Tooby

The Hare with Amber Eyes

Author: Edmund de Waal
354 pages
Chatto and Windus, London, 2010
Recommended Retail Price in UK £14.99

Contents | Home


by Mary Drach McInnes

The Convergence of Parallel Tangents

by Timothy John Berg

Time, Place, and Perception

by Lawrence A. Bush


by Rory MacDonald


by Michael Jones McKean

Interdisciplinary Mind, Deft Hand

by Annabeth Rosen

To Eat, To Die, To Play

by Linda Sikora


by Linda Sormin


The Hare with Amber Eyes

by Michael Tooby

Modern British Potters and their Studios

by Douglas Phillips

A Guide to Collecting Studio Pottery

by Juliet Armstrong

Ceramics Film Festival

by Leah McLaughlin

Getting it Right

by Alan Wallwork

NB. A Word document is available to download at the end of each article.

The reviews of Edmund de Waal’s new book have usually mentioned that he is a potter, ‘perhaps the most famous potter working in Britain today’.1   As is now well known, the book is not about pots. It is a personal account which traces how a collection of traditional Japanese ‘netsuke’, 264 miniature carvings in ivory and wood, came to him.

De Waal frames the book with its relevance to his practice:

I am the fifth generation of the family to inherit this collection, and it is my story too. I am a maker: I make pots. How things are made, how they are handled and what happens to them has been central to my life for over thirty years. So too has Japan, a place I went to when I was 17 to study pottery. How objects embody memory - or more particularly, whether objects can hold memories - is a real question for me.2

For a readership of the book made up of those who are already familiar with his career as a ceramicist and curator / polemicist, this is the obvious way to read this memoir:  look out for references to materials; register descriptions of porcelain in its various types of manufacture;  develop further the understanding of the dialogue between Europe and Japan. There is the way in which the narrative traces back an affinity with things gathered and collected and displayed.  We have repeated insights onto the experience of architecture, of place, and the journeys which objects make.  

These are all there from the outset. One rapidly realises, however, that the real momentum behind the book is the relationships between the people brought to life in describing the journey the netsuke collection has made. Edmund de Waal writes with a wonderful mix of the essayist’s precision and the novelist’s evocation of time, character and place. He has a terrific sense of telling detail and nuance. He also carries us along with his own passion and honesty.

He risks hubris by using the device of placing his own enquiry in the foreground. He sets up the project by explaining his first encounter with the netsuke collection at a crucial point in his early career. Having studied in the traditional studio ceramic practice and in the traditional English university, he has moved on through a scholarship to study and work in Tokyo. He works in the archive at the Mingeikan. The Tokyo apartment of his great Uncle, known as Iggie, provides both a kind of refuge and a signal to the young man’s taste and outlook. 

He wins the reader’s acceptance and appreciation of this self-reference by the directness with which he expresses, at different moments, love, empathy, distaste and anger. At the outset, for example, he gives a moving description of returning to Tokyo for his great Uncle’s funeral. He thereby explains that he eventually inherits the collection, and that the present book is the result of a decision to fill out through research with due thoroughness his hitherto basic grasp of the story of the collection.

The first of the three main sections – one for each generation –sees de Waal travelling to Paris, seeking out both documentary sources and real places associated with his great great-uncle, Charles Ephrussi who first acquired the collection. Switching between tenses, the research project is in the recent past while the author’s encounters with real places and the  deep past are both described in the active present.  We gradually realise that Charles is at the heart of Parisian cultural life, a critic and editor, and the model for Proust’s character Swann.

De Waal then moves on to Vienna, following the netsuke when they are given as a wedding present to Charles’ cousin Viktor.  Over the course of Viktor’s life, Vienna evolves. It fades as the last capital of the Habsburg empire, becomes a new city of the modern world, and one of the places at the heart of the European tragedy begotten by post Imperialism and anti-Semitism. De Waal’s great grandfather and his family and friends personify the kind of ‘enemy’ that the forces of proto-fascism begin to target.

In fact, one of the most powerful dimensions of the book, permitted by the author’s openness of exegesis, is to vivify anti-Semitism. The era of the Dreyfuss affair is the context for Charles’ later career in Paris. In Vienna, de Waal demonstrates how generalised, how embedded in everyday society anti-Semitism was over the decades that the young Hitler grew up in Vienna. Uncle Iggie, for example, describes walking in the Alps, in the time soon after the First World War, when identity cards were required:  ‘It was already cold, but there was a hut, full of students round the stove and cheerful noise. They asked us for our cards and then told us to get out, told us that Jews polluted the mountain air’. 3

We see the vast new apartment block in which the family lived, their holidays in homes in Hungary and Switzerland. We see an intellectual and artistic heritage, and a kind of permissiveness about sexual relationships quietly accommodated in family life.  The architectural and collecting taste of the family is used as a counterpoint and harmony to these themes: ‘There is light in these rooms, trembling reflections and glints of silver and porcelain and polished fruitwood, and shadows from the linden trees’.4
The dreadful unfolding of the fate of the family through the later lives of the author’s great grandparents and the early lives of his grandparents should be left in the reading of the book.

However, it is worth noting that by this stage, perhaps two-thirds to three quarters through, some questions are answered. The book’s sub-title is an example. The nature of ‘a hidden inheritance’ is linked both to subterfuge – how did families retain precious possessions in such upheaval, even when so much was lost or destroyed? – and to identity – to what extent is there no coincidence, luck or happenstance in such stories, merely a realisation of the hidden poetry involved in understanding how people remain connected to one another over time, through shared values, loves and memories?

As the netsuke collection approaches its move to its (presently) penultimate home, we are back in post-war Japan. A directness in the author’s relationship to the place, the collection, returns to the narrative. The history of the netsuke, their re-interpretation and experience for different generations figures particularly in the closing passages of the book, returning as they do to Japan. De Waal reconsiders how they represent a refiguring of what ‘Japanese’ now means, after the war, through the eyes of occupying powers, in contrast to the exotic, eroticised ‘Japonaiserie’ that was the taste through which great-great uncle Charles was first drawn to them.

A visit to Odessa, the place that had to be left behind, provincial even if the original source of the family’s wealth,  plays ironically as a last stage in his research : 

As I stand in front of the museum with its statue of a wrestling Laocoon, the one that Charles drew for Viktor, I realise how wrong I’ve been ...Just because Odessa was a dusty city, with its stevedores and sailors, stokers, fisherman, divers, smugglers, adventurers, swindlers, and their grandfather Joachim, the great chancer in his Palais, did not that mean that it was not full of writers and artists too.5

So the author eventually brings us home, to his own home in London and his own life and work.

This allows a reappraisal of the initial thoughts about how the narrative relates to de Waal’s studio practice. Yes, specific references to his exhibitions and projects have been prompted: the metaphor of opening doors in recent work; images of containers, packed away, about to leave or just arrived;  memory and experience and  the idea of rediscovering one’s past through autodidacticism or research in his Kettle’s Yard installation; the sense of rediscovery of collections and collectors in Cardiff; the idea of revealing hidden treasures in Dartington or MIMA; the diverse ways in which we understand objects in architectural space in so many projects, from Blackwell and Chatsworth  in England to the Kunstindustrimuseum in Copenhagen.6

De Waal noted in the publication accompanying the Blackwell project how the places he has worked in have been akin to a personal journey through different buildings:

This way of working, of responding to a building in such a way as to articulate it, converse with it, reveal a different history or interrogate a forgotten past has become an intensely pleasurable path for me. I have been fortunate enough to work with a High Modernist villa (High Cross House in Devon), a contemporary pavilion attached to an 18th century Orangery (Munckenbeck and Marshall’s New Art Centre) and an Edwardian museum (The National Museum in Cardiff).

And he describes how the intimidating challenge of Blackwell’s architectural specificity was alleviated by the awareness of its history of different uses, different occupants:  ‘So pots have been made for particular spaces, some very public and obvious, others more private and hidden’.7

In a later text, de Waal explores this sensitivity to specific sites vis a vis the fact that groups of objects may be situated in different sites over their lifetime.

In many ways the works made for Kettle’s Yard and mima are not discrete installations, they are a movement through a series of charged places within those buildings. The exhibitions are about how things work and what happens when you move a thing from one place to another.8

Aside from the connections to the motifs and themes of the memoir, these projects remind us that De Waal’s practice has been characterised by demanding an authorial voice in both the practice and critical framework for ceramics.

The foregrounding of the authorial voice in the memoir affirms de Waal’s position as both a writer and a potter. In a memoir about his real family, suffused with love and empathy, we are reminded of his relationship with his ur-father, Bernard Leach, this being a complex brew of admiration and critique. De Waal’s attitude to Leach is in large part driven by his feeling for the relationships between what Leach says in his texts and what he made, how he ran his practice. De Waal is particularly anxious about how ‘[Leach’s] writing established the canon by which his own work was judged’.9

Of his own career, de Waal has commented:

The challenge for me is that I am a potter from the Leach tradition but also a critic who studied literature at Cambridge University. And I have written books and many essays, and most of my friends are novelists and critics, not potters. I come from a background of literature as well as pottery.10

In the ‘Hare with Amber Eyes’ , foregrounding the authorial voice parallels de Waal’s practice in that  an intellectual or experiential grounding of idea is, or should be, integral to the experience of the physicality of the object in the work. The nature of his installations are that certain crucial qualities, understood as paradigmatic of ceramic practices, are challenged or ‘unpacked’ in an active way by the evidently authorial manner of presentation.

Consider his writing about the sensory experience of objects. Whilst many reviewers have noted, rightly, the power of description of touch in ‘Hare with Amber Eyes’, the keenness of the writing about fragility, about the feel of objects, de Waal’s installations and objects are often about the denial of that possibility. We might glimpse a profusion of pots inside containers, or find them high up on isolated shelves. Other times we ask a minder nearby if we are allowed to open a door, to step up to look inside a raised box. Sometimes we are allowed, often we are not.

Books about collections and collectors usually have the luxury of not requiring to physically deploy the collections themselves. Freedom from constraints of scale, weight and fragility allows authors to create juxtapositions of reproductions.   So, one of the most curious, or more likely, most calculated and subtle, devices of Edmund de Waal’s book is that there are no illustrations of the very objects of the collection which is its prompt, its central motif, its raison d’etre. To see reproductions of the netsuke themselves, we must travel through web pages and print out press releases, none of which are referenced in the book.

Meanwhile the recurring image of the memoir which constantly draws us back to this theme is the image of the vitrine. The vitrine which went with the collection from Paris to Vienna. The new display unit created for the netsuke in Tokyo. The replacement vitrine found in London – bought from the Victoria and Albert Museum when declared redundant by recent refurbishment, in fact.

In Paris, de Waal declares : 

Now that Charles has one of his own, I realise they are part of the performance of salon life, not just part of the furnishings. ... The vitrines exist so that you can see objects, but not touch them : they frame things, suspend them, tantalise through distance. // This is what I realise now I failed to understand about vitrines. I spent the first twenty years of my life as a potter earnestly trying to get objects out of the glass cases in which my pots were often placed in galleries and museums...// But the vitrine – as opposed to the museum’s case – is for opening. And that opening glass door and the moment of looking, then choosing, and then reaching in and then picking up is a moment of seduction, an encounter between a hand and an object that is electric.11

‘Are museums about objects or stories?’ asked a recent conference12. The question needed to be asked, it was argued, since so many experiences of objects in museums are now secondary to narratives. These narratives are laid out in graphics, in interactives, in dense three-dimensional environments, and using film, video and cgi. Where, we ask when overwhelmed by such stuff, is the object, the collection, the founding principle, the sine qua non of museums? In our world of secondary and virtual experience, globalisation and reproduction, surely we need to rediscover the object, the sense of physical scale, the comparison of detail, the nuances of material? And even when the object is there in front of us, we are denied it, left instead to surrogates in handling sessions if we wish to understand them more fully.

Inevitably, the introduction of narrative around objects, particularly objects which have generated fame and status, introduces relationships of power and status. The curator (one also thinks of the English title ‘Keeper’ used for senior museum posts) dispenses stories in order to validate judgements or provide insights about objects. We hope that these engage and enthuse those outside their world, but at the same time they create the need for a critical reader and viewer, who tests, measures, asks questions of story and object.

The Hare with Amber Eyes reminds us, so powerfully, that the epiphany that artist or museum must seek is when the power of the object and the necessity of the story are in a provocative but perfect conjunction. It also requires reflection on how the reader, in being able to share the stories offered, must use it according to de Waal’s example: as an opportunity to measure their own experience, what they have learned, against the story being offered.

Much of de Waal’s work, both made and written, has positioned itself to express the artist’s share in this process. He has celebrated and asked questions of buildings, of histories, of institutions. He has asked us to re-read what we may have accepted too easily as the standard literature by the dominant personalities. At the end of the book, he is careful to keep his own endeavour in perspective :

I think of all those careful burnings by others, the systematic erasing of stories, the separations between people and their possessions, and then of people from their families and families from their neighbourhoods. And then from their country. // I think of someone checking a list to make sure that these people were still alive and resident in Vienna...If others can be so careful over things that are so important, then I must be careful over these objects and their stories.13

In being such a vivid and moving story, The Hare With Amber Eyes  now becomes a wayfinder on a journey of further inquisition, by author and his readers,  of the relationship of people and their values to beautiful and meaningful things. As I write, the book is number 1 in the London Review Bookshop bestseller list. The success of this book will bring its own responsibilities, not least to the future exegesis of his own and contemporary practice in the visual arts. If Edmund de Waal is going to carry the label of ‘perhaps the most famous potter working in Britain today, then he also has the platform to understand what there is to be learned from the example of perhaps the last person who  carried that label.


  1. Rachel Cook, The Observer, 6 June 2010. back to text
  2. Website text : www.edmunddewaal.com/news  back to text
  3. De Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes, p.206. back to text
  4. Ibid p.155. back to text
  5. Ibid p.344. back to text
  6. Kettle’s Yard Cambridge, mima Middlesbrough, 2007; Arcanum : mapping 18th century porcelain, National Museum Cardiff, 2005; Line Around a Shadow, Blackwell House, Cumbria, 2005; A Sounding Line, Chatsworth, Derbyshire, 2007; Porcelain room, Kunstindustrimuseum, Copenhagen, 2004. back to text
  7. Edmund de Waal, Line around a Shadow, Lakeland Arts Trust, 2005. back to text
  8. Extract from interview with Edmund de Waal by David Hills and Elizabeth Fisher in Edmund de Waal at Kettle’s Yard, mima and elsewhere, Cambridge and Middlesbrough, 2007. back to text
  9. Edmund de Waal, Bernard Leach, Tate Publishing, London, 1997. back to text
  10. Edmund de Waal in ‘Discussion : Study on Bernard Leach and Studio Pottery, Edmund de Waal  and Kenji Kaneko’, 2005 in Rethinking Bernard Leach: Studio Pottery and Contemporary Ceramics. (Japanese Edition) Tokyo, Shibunkaku Publishing Co. 2007. back to text
  11. Ibid p.65. back to text
  12. ‘Are Museums about stories or objects?’ contributions recorded in Museum ID issue 2, London, 2009. back to text
  13. Ibid p.344. back to text

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Book Review by Michael Tooby • Issue 12

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