Searching for a Lost World

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Edmund de Waal
Shoki the demon catcher; Edo-period netsuke by Gyokuyosai, from Edmund de Waal’s family’s collection

Visitors to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London who go in by the main Cromwell Road entrance and look up will see, suspended from the dome high overhead, a recently installed circular shelf of red lacquer, which holds 425 carefully arranged pieces of contemporary porcelain—plates, jars, bowls, cups, teapots—in a variety of subtle shades of white, cream, gray, light blue, and pale celadon. All the pieces in this installation are the creation of Edmund de Waal, perhaps the most eminent, and probably the most learned and articulate, British ceramicist working today—a man whose passionate desire to be a potter was first expressed at the age of five, when he insisted that his father take him to an adult evening class to be taught to make pots.

Celebrated for his ceramics of elegant simplicity, affecting purity, and ravishing glazes, in recent years de Waal has shifted his focus from individual pieces to installations of multiple works, such as those he has done for Lady Bessborough’s Artists’ House at Roche Court near Salisbury, for Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, for the Chapel Corridor at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, and for other locations. These installations consist of a number of pieces, whether bowls or brush holders, carefully arranged in sequences on a shelf or in a large open box divided into shelves hung on a wall. This latest work at the V&A, quite different from his earlier installations and his most ambitious to date, is said by the museum to be the largest installation commission in Britain by any single artist in a public or private space. In the unexpected book he has now written about his ancestors, The Hare with Amber Eyes, de Waal’s artistic sensibility and historical empathy are as animating as they are in his ceramic craft.

When I first went to England just after World War II, British pottery was still dominated by the messianic figure of Bernard Leach, and I retain a vivid memory of the surprise and admiration with which I first encountered his work in a Sussex drawing room in 1949. Leach was a dogmatic ideologue who championed the simplicity of Japanese ruralist pottery, claiming that his own pottery brought to the West the fundamental essence and mystery of the East. De Waal shares Leach’s devotion to Japan, which he first visited in 1981 at the age of seventeen in order to study the tea ceremony; he has also become adept in Japanese, which Leach was not.

Before going to Cambridge to study English literature, de Waal apprenticed himself to one of Leach’s devotees, Geoffrey Whiting. Later, however, in 1998, he published a book on Leach that achieved considerable notoriety for its severely revisionist reassessment of his work, pointing out that Leach’s “etiolated” experience of Japan and of Japanese pottery was actually very limited, confined to …

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