Nowadays nearly everyone has heard of Edmund de Waal, the author of The Hare with Amber Eyes, mega-selling winner of the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje prize and the Costa Biography Award. The book is a fascinating account of the lavish lifestyle of his rich and cultivated family in Paris and Vienna and its destruction by the Nazis, told through the story of the survival of their collection of netsuke (tiny ivory Japanese sculptures). But writing is actually a bit of a sideline for de Waal who has never given up his day job as a potter. An exhibition of his recent work has just opened at the Alan Cristea Gallery so I went along to take a look.
It was more like visiting an art exhibition than a pottery display because de Waal doesn’t make single pots any more – he makes hundreds of pots which are assembled together in groups in display cabinets or vitrines (glass display cases which de Waal has designed himself), some of which have opaque glass so you can only see the vague outline of the pots inside. Hence the prices, which range from £65,000 to half a million pounds, so if you were thinking of rushing down to do your Christmas shopping, think again. But if you have the money you would get some bang for your buck; the largest piece, A Thousand Hours, consists of two giant vitrines containing 1,000 pots.
de Waal originally trained in the Bernard Leach tradition but had already made the move from plain utilitarian clay to porcelain (anathema to Leach followers) when he went to Japan on a Daiwa Foundation scholarship and studied at the Mejiro Ceramics Studio in Tokyo. Japan liberated his work and helped him find commercial and artistic success.
It’s interesting to spot the connections with Mashiko Pottery which showed at the London Design Festival this year. Shoji Hamada, founder of Mashiko, worked with Bernard Leach and also co-founded the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo where de Waal studied.