Edmund de Waal’s Million Little Pieces

Toby Glanville

The body of work by the ceramic artist and best-selling author of “The Hare with Amber Eyes” possesses a profound simplicity born of a pure dedication to his craft.

I am very bad at names, I mumble and fudge,” Edmund de Waal writes with characteristic diffidence in the prologue to his word-of-mouth best-selling memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes (which has sold more than a million copies worldwide, despite being ignored by The New York Times), “but I am good on pots.” In the annals of understatement, this sentence ranks right up there: De Waal is better than “good,” to be sure; he is a master potter who was awarded the Order of the British Empire several years ago and whose white-, black- and celadon-glazed pieces go for anywhere between $11,000 and $830,000. His innovative installations, which can contain hundreds of pots, frequently gathered in vitrines behind frosted glass, have been displayed in museums and galleries here and abroad—like the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Gagosian Gallery on New York’s Madison Avenue and, most recently, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge—and his commissions are various and prestigious, gracing public spaces and private homes. This April sees the publication of a deluxe monograph on de Waal’s work by Phaidon Press, which, in place of the usual impenetrable art speak, includes eloquent contributions by such writerly types as A.S. Byatt, Colm Tóibín and Peter Carey.

Although de Waal, 49, has spent years toiling by himself in marginal places, “on the borders of Wales” and in an unnamed “grim inner city,” these days he works at his wheel in a light-filled studio in south London. His painstakingly preserved sense of modesty is worth noting right off, I think, because the tension between simplicity and sophistication—between an ordained humbleness of intention and an innate artistic ingenuity as well as ambition—informs every aspect of de Waal’s vision, from the rather ornate fashion in which he recounts his family’s story of lost fortunes and recovered objects (most notably, a collection of netsuke, Japanese miniature sculptures) to the way he shapes lumps of clay into spare and unclamorous vessels that stubbornly, even magisterially, assert their presence.

Indeed, when I recently got to see for myself two of the installations that de Waal created for his show last year at Gagosian—Ancel, III (2013), containing 11 porcelain vessels in a wood-and-lead cabinet, and Three short walks, I (2012), consisting of 14 porcelain dishes arranged as if left in the wake of an abandoned dinner party—I was not prepared for the sheer visceral impact of the work. Although de Waal’s ceramics have been compared to such diverse artists as Agnes Martin and Donald Judd, I find him much less impersonal—and, to be honest, much less arid—than either of them. One feels the living, breathing potter everywhere in de Waal’s creations, from his delicate seal to the way he positions his vessels (with subtle indentations to indicate where he intends each of them to stand) to his limpid glazes, which include matte and speckled as well as glossy ones. Then, too, there’s something poignant about the way he has chosen to outline the wavering lids of some of his pots and, in the case of Three short walks, to faintly gild his dishes, almost as if to insist on their scraggy imperfections in the very midst of their elegant minimalism. The result is more like a whispered conversation between the viewer and the artist than a dictation from on high, and for some reason I think of the words from “Pied Beauty,” by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Glory be to God for dappled things…All things counter, original, spare, strange….”

Some boys dream of becoming firemen and doctors; others, rarer in number, dream of throwing pots. De Waal’s love of ceramics goes back to age five, when he “badgered” his father, as he says in The Hare with Amber Eyes, into letting him take an evening pottery class. “My first pot,” he vividly recalls, “was a thrown bowl that I glazed in opalescent white with a splash of cobalt blue.” One of four brothers raised by two gifted academics (his father was a chaplain of the University of Nottingham and later dean of Canterbury Cathedral; his mother was a renowned historian and expert in Celtic mythology), the young de Waal enjoyed what he describes as a “feral childhood,” foraging with his brothers for archaeological fragments in the garden and running around the cathedral roofs.

By the time he was 12, much to his intellectual family’s amusement, de Waal had embarked on an aesthetic education that prioritized the use of his hands over his mind, spending his afternoons with Geoffrey Whiting, the potter-in-residence at the King’s School in Canterbury, where he was a student. Whiting was a disciple of Bernard Leach, the preeminent British potter, and subscribed to his ethos of the “ethical pot,” which stressed functionalism and repetition of production over creative whimsy. De Waal deferred college to work full-time with Whiting, who instilled in his 17-year-old student a veneration for an unegotistical pursuit of pure craft—meticulously devoid of attention-seeking flourishes. “Be careful,” Whiting would say, “of the unwarranted gesture. Less is more.” Eventually, after acquiring a degree in English literature from Cambridge and living the life of the rural potter in Herefordshire (digging for clay, making wood ash, building his kiln), de Waal began to break away from his monastic influences and what he called his “brown casseroles.” “My pots got freer,” he explains. “It was like shedding something.”

This evolution came about with his decision to work in porcelain (a material abjured by Leach except for teapots and fine bowls) and then, starting in 1992, with the year he spent in Japan. There he learned the language in the morning and worked in a crowded ceramics studio in the center of Tokyo in the afternoon. He also experimented with putting the objects he made in groups instead of viewing each in isolation: “So they sat softly in each other’s space,” he says. “I began to think about how things could sequence themselves.” (These days his pots are made of Limoges porcelain and are no longer sold individually.)

In 1993 de Waal returned to London and had immediate success with his new “softly thrown” porcelain, almost selling out the first day he showed at the Chelsea Craft Fair. Exhibition offers followed, including his first solo show at the idiosyncratic Belgravia concept shop Egg in 1995, as did marriage to Sue Chandler. Soon de Waal, who had been writing on crafts for various journals and regularly reviewing the work of his peers, published two books: one on Leach and a groundbreaking work called 20th Century Ceramics (Thames & Hudson). Both caused a stir in the world of ceramics (de Waal received hate mail over his Leach monograph) because of their reconsideration of the cult of Japonisme and the way it defined the obsessively understated tradition of British crafts. Whereas Leach and his followers assuaged their anxiety about the status of clay by insisting on keeping a tight rein on the interplay of ceramics with the larger fine arts context, de Waal was increasingly drawn to the medium’s more fluid—and competitive—architectural and conceptual dimensions. He had begun to see himself as a “curator of porcelain stories” rather than a maker of stout and silent pots.

With the publication of The Hare with Amber Eyesin 2010, de Waal’s first-class sensibilities as a writer and thinker became clear to a wide swath of the reading public and brought attention to his pottery that it might otherwise not have had. Larry Gagosian reportedly got in touch with de Waal after reading his memoir to suggest a show, and the intense coverage the exhibit received (not all positive) no doubt reflected the potter’s radically increased visibility. All of which brings me back, in a roundabout—and purely anecdotal—way, to the theme of modesty and how it is reflected in de Waal’s approach to his art.

A good friend of mine, a movie agent named John Burnham, happened to be visiting Gagosian on the eve of de Waal’s show. As he was trying to get into the bathroom, he attempted to move what he took to be a table with stuff strewn on it. The table, which was in fact a temporary plank, came crashing down and with it several of de Waal’s pots. Mortified, Burnham asked to speak to de Waal, to whom he strenuously apologized and offered to pay for the broken work. Much to his surprise, de Waal was calm and reassuring about the wreckage; he would not take a penny, and the two eventually traded warm letters, with de Waal sending a copy of his memoir and Burnham sending a rare Japanese text on ceramics. While listening to the story, it occurred to me that aside from there being a lesson in it in the uses of loss—to learn to let go of even that which we have come to regard as most precious—de Waal has found a way, with the deceptively simple form he has made his own, of both encapsulating what is important to him and sending it out to the universe to take up residence as it will, imprinted with his potter’s seal, meant for the ages and yet infinitely, wonderfully fragile.

In The Hare with Amber Eyes(Picador)—2010 winner of a Galaxy National Book Award for new writer of the year, an Economist Book of the Year nod and the Costa Book Award for biography—de Waal traces the history of his family, the Ephrussis, wealthy Jewish grain merchants who grew into a European banking dynasty.

Anchored by the collection of 264 Japanese netsuke—intricate carvings that date back to the 17th century—first acquired by Charles Ephrussi in the 1870s and passed down from generation to generation, the story follows de Waal’s ancestors through wars and anti-Semitism and the family’s lives in Paris, Vienna and Japan.