The Edmund de Waal exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is subtitled On white; Porcelain Stories from the Fitzwilliam and de Waal fans need to note that because it’s not an exhibition of de Waal’s works; it’s a re-curation by de Waal of four of the ceramic galleries at the museum with two large-scale ‘interventions’ (works) by him, one of which we’ve seen before and one which has been specially commissioned for the Fitzwilliam’s Chinese Gallery. Is it worth a day trip? I went with a couple of friends and we all absolutely loved it.
The exhibition spreads across four of the ground floor galleries. The first thing you encounter is de Waal’s large work a thousand hours, which I wrote about when it was at the Alan Cristea last year. But the magnificent setting at the Fitzwilliam does it justice in a way that the more constrained space of Alan Cristea couldn’t do, with light pouring in from the big window at the top of the nearby Courtauld staircase. Cambridge residents might like to pop in more than once to see it in different lights.
de Waal says of it, ‘in this space containing hundreds of objects and and hundreds of years of history, how can we count those hours?’
de Waal has chosen his favourite porcelain vessels from the Fitzwilliam collection, selected, he says, because they are ‘perplexing and beautiful and because they connect stories of where they were made and who they were made for.’
These cups are from Meissen in Germany and date from the early 18th century. Meissen was the first place in Europe to discover the secret of making porcelain, long known in China. The teapot is English, from the Bow factory (c. 1750-1755).
Porcelain originated in the white clay mined in and around the Chinese city of Jingdezhen and de Waal shows us some of the actual white clay, displayed in one of the drawers under the vitrine which you can open to see explanations and photographs and illuminating little notes hand written by de Waal.
You can find the clay drawer under the vitrine called lost in white, a compendium of white Chinese vessels spanning four hundred years of chinese history.
Beyond this vitrine is de Waal’s second work in the exhibition, yourself, you. It’s smaller than a thousand hours, two clear vitrines of unglazed porcelain vessels, beautifully lit.
Not billed as by de Waal but from his collection is this stack of ten dishes imitating Song Dynasty porcelain.
It stands next to a vitrine of vessels that includes this Imari ware charger from late 17th century Japan. The note in the drawer underneath says that this is de Waal’s favourite in the Fitzwilliam collection.
These stem cups in different coloured glazes are from different eras; the blue glaze is from Jingdezhen (1522-1566), celadon from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1643) and copper red from the Yongzheng period (1722-1735). de Waal comments on the difficulty of making porcelain in this shape – ‘not impossible but barely achievable’, he says.
These long porcelain tiles were made in Jingdezhen for de Waal last year for the museum to display its porcelain on.
But there is one more work by de Waal in the exhibition. Called in plain sight it is hidden ‘somewhere nearby’ and it’s up to you to find it. I’m not going to give its hiding place away, but it’s worth the search.
The exhibition is free and continues until 23 February 2014. The Fitzwilliam is open Tuesday to Saturday 10 am to 5 pm and Sundays 12 pm to 5 pm. It’s closed on Mondays.