Saturday, 28 April 2012

Renaissance man of the South Circular

Edmund de Waal wrote bestselling memoir, The Hare With Amber Eyes, but he’s also the creator of ethereal, beautiful pots in the tradition of Hans Coper and Lucie Rie

Written by Hugh St Clair

It seems a bit incongruous to find one of Britain’s best-known and best-loved potters working in a small space in the middle of a south London traffic gyratory system. Edmund de Waal doesn’t need a remote country village in which to work, it appears. Despite its surroundings, his remodelled Victorian workshop is an oasis of calm.

‘Thanks so much for coming,’ he says earnestly. I am of course very flattered this Renaissance man should have time to see me but, as the conversation goes on, it becomes clear he seems to enjoy talking about his love for making pots and exploring intellectual ideas around them. Perhaps it is because he studied English at Cambridge, is also a bestselling writer, and is as much a conceptual artist as a potter, that he enjoys such verbal analysis.

house 590 2A selection of de Waal's ceramics see at The Art Museum

This month, de Waal is excited because he is putting on his first exhibition since the publication of his family memoir, The Hare With Amber Eyes, about his Jewish banking antecedents and their treasures confiscated by the Nazis. ‘It’s an exhibition of the book,’ he says. His own family, the Ephrussis, lost everything in the war so an exhibition at his Rothschild relation’s home, Waddesdon – furnished in similar taste to the Ephrussis’ pre-war Viennese palace – is particularly poignant. He will place his simple monochrome pots among the Sèvres porcelain and highly decorated clocks, and on the parquetry tables that make up the florid style of Waddesdon.

In Edmund’s book, the Netsuke collection saved from the Nazis by a family maid, and now in his possession, was kept in a vitrine. ‘In the work for Waddesdon I am exploring the idea of time being paused in a collector’s cabinet, so I have encased the plates and cylindrical vessels in vitrines, which don’t open,’ he says. ‘I am now exploring things that are untouchable.’

The Waddesdon pots are site-specific. Other temporary exhibitions of his work at Chatsworth, Kettle’s Yard Cambridge, and the National Museum Cardiff have been more site-sensitive – the pots don’t necessarily have to be intricately linked with their immediate surroundings.

house 590 3Left: A lead-lined lacquer cabinet with porcelain vessels in black and grey glazes. Right: From the Predella show at Kettle's Yard, 2007

Edmund de Waal made his first pot at the age of five. He persuaded his father, a Church of England vicar, to take him to an evening class near Canterbury where he grew up. ‘I was instructed by the adult education teacher to decorate with patterns and coloured glaze,’ he recalls. ‘Much to their amazement I refused; I only wanted to make pieces that were unadorned white.’

While at King’s School Canterbury he was taught by Geoffrey Whiting, a disciple of Bernard Leach, whose work de Waal was later controversially to criticise in print. After university, he rented a farmhouse in the Welsh Borders and built his own kiln. Later he tried to make functional, inexpensive plates and cups: ‘My pots were not very nice. Nobody wanted to buy them – the Welsh Borders are full of potters and there are not enough customers.’

De Waal decided to return to London and plough his own urban furrow. He doesn’t see himself in the English tradition of Leach, but prefers the work of refugees such as Hans Coper and Lucie Rie.

He started to make pots without handles, spouts or lids. They were in ghostly colours – whites and creams touched by the blue of duck eggs or the pale celadon green of Korean jars and dishes. He sees his work as joining the Chinese Sung dynasty with the simplicities of the Bauhaus. It’s not nature but music and modern art and literature that inspire him – he plays Bach’s choral music as he works.

house 590 4Left: A display of his circular pots. Centre: Below The Waterline, 2005, 52 thrown vessels with celadon glazes. Right: A Change In The Weather at Predella, Kettle's Yard, 2007

De Waal’s installation of pots at the Alan Cristea Gallery in 2010 was titled From Zero, taken from a quote by Russian Constructivist Kazimir Malevich. Novelist AS Byatt wrote in the catalogue: ‘His works call up Malevich’s colours, and also a meditation on the appearance of something from nothing.’

Edmund cites Canterbury Cathedral as influencing his pottery. He loved wandering round the city when he was at school, yet it was not the shapes that gave him ideas but the spaces. ‘You can descend into spaces; get trapped in spaces and come out again into different places. Space can change your emotions, and that connects to my pots.’

A more obvious influence is the Victoria & Albert Museum, where de Waal’s pots are permanently exhibited in the Ceramics Gallery. ‘I used to spend hours wandering round the dusty galleries,’ he recalls. His time resulted in the publication of The Pot Book, an exhilarating journey through 300 illustrations of bowls, cups, jars, teapots and accompanying text.

Written in alphabetical order, the book shows vessels ranging from Mycenaean terracotta from 1300BC, to a clay sculpture by Yoshikawa Masamichi made in 2009, with every variety of ceramics in between: fine Chinese and Sèvres porcelain, decorated Staffordshire teapots, Art Nouveau and British mid-20th century Midwinter, with many modern artists thrown in. It is a wonderful book.

As for the new book, de Waal is being very secretive. ‘I have an idea but it’s not fully formed,’ is all he will divulge.

Ceramic shows

Edmund de Waal at Waddesdon Manor Waddesdon, Buckinghamshire HP18 0JH: 01296-653226, www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ waddesdon-manor 20 April to 28 October

Edmund de Waal ceramics are on permanent display in the Ceramics Gallery, V&A Museum, London SW7: 020-7942 2000, www.vam.ac.uk

De Waal is represented by the Alan Cristea Gallery where he will be holding a selling show from 6 October to 10 November. Alan Cristea, 31 Cork Street, London W1: 020-7439 1866, www.alancristea.com

The Pot Book by Edmund de Waal is published by Phaidon, priced £29.95.



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