Edmund de Waal
Edmund Arthur Lowndes de Waal, OBE (born 1964) is a British ceramic artist, and author of The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010). He has worked as a curator, lecturer, art critic, art historian and was Professor of Ceramics at the University of Westminster until 2011. He has received several awards and honours for his work.
Life and work
De Waal was born in Nottingham, England, the son of Esther Aline (née Lowndes-Moir) and Rev. Dr Victor de Waal, later Dean of Canterbury Cathedral. His grandfather was Hendrik de Waal, a Dutch businessman who moved to England and from whom he got his Dutch family name. His grandmother Elisabeth was a member of the Ephrussi family, whose history he would chronicle in The Hare with Amber Eyes.
De Waal made his first pot at the age of five, after persuading his father to take him to a ceramics evening class. He was educated at The King's School, Canterbury, where he was taught pottery by the potter Geoffrey Whiting, a disciple of Bernard Leach. Aged 17, de Waal obtained a place at Cambridge University and deferred entry to spend time in Japan and then take up a two-year apprenticeship with Whiting. During the apprenticeship he repetitively made hundreds of pots, such as casseroles and honey pots, telling BBC radio interviewer John Tusa, "It’s a bit like doing scales as well – you’d never be surprised by a musician spending five years doing arpeggios, and there is a sense in a ceramic apprenticeship that that’s really what you’re doing."
Following graduation, de Waal followed the path he had decided upon long before going up to Cambridge: to make inexpensive domestic pots with good earth colours. He moved to the Welsh borders where he built a kiln and set up a pottery making functional stoneware pots in the Leach tradition, but the enterprise was not successful. He moved to inner-city Sheffield and started to work with porcelain, describing it as “the great taboo material; it doesn't do any of the 'proper' work of a pot. In using it I was trying to find a way out".
In 1991 he obtained a Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation Scholarship, under which he spent a year obtaining a post-graduate diploma in Japanese language at Sheffield University  and then another year continuing his study of the language in Japan. Whilst in Japan he also worked on a monograph of Bernard Leach, researching Leach’s papers and journals in the archive room of the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum, and continued to make pots, porcelain jars with the pushed-in, gestural sides that were to epitomise his style.
On returning to Britain in 1993, de Waal began living in London and made his distinctive ceramics, porcelain with a celadon glaze. Their shapes were essentially classical but with indentations or pinches and subtle variations in tone and texture. The pots became very fashionable, and in 1995 he had his first of many solo exhibitions.
De Waal's book on Bernard Leach was published in 1998. He described it as "the first 'de-mystifying' study of Leach." "The great myth of Leach," he said, "is that Leach is the great interlocutor for Japan and the East, the person who understood the East, who explained it to us all, brought out the mystery of the East. But in fact the people he was spending time with, and talking to, were very few, highly educated, often Western educated Japanese people, who in themselves had no particular contact with rural, unlettered Japan of peasant craftsman." He noted that Leach did not speak Japanese and had looked at only a narrow range of Japanese ceramics. These opinions attracted criticism from some of Leach's followers.
His work remained broadly within the Anglo-Oriental tradition but he also studied the modernists, and the Bauhaus movement in particular. In visits to Gothic cathedrals as a child de Waal had attended to small spaces within large buildings. While at university he began to consider how his work might help to re-order the interior space of the museums and art galleries he visited. In his current work he has moved away from making single objects to the production of groups of objects to be viewed in relation to openings and spaces. Most of his work consists of cylindrical porcelain pots with pale celadon glazes. He believes that the East and West may meet in porcelain; for example, that there the ethos of China's medieval Sung Dynasty may encounter the modernist ethos of the Bauhaus.
In 2010 de Waal's family memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes: a Hidden Inheritance, was published, first with Chatto & Windus in the UK and later with Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York. In it he retraces the history of his Jewish relatives (from his paternal grandmother) - the wealthy and influential Ephrussi family - through stories about a collection 264 Japanese netsuke that were handed down through the generations and eventually given to de Waal by his great-uncle Ignace "Iggie" Ephrussi, who settled in Tokyo in 1947. The book has received critical acclaim and has won many literary prizes, including the Costa Book Award, the Galaxy New Writer of the Year Book Award and the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize Ondaatje Prize. It has already sold more than a million copies and by 2013, will be published in over twenty-three languages.
In 2011 Edmund was commissioned by Phaidon Press to write "The Pot Book", a colour-illustrated anthology of 300 ceramic vessels.
De Waal, who has made installations for Chatsworth, Kettle's Yard, Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert Museum, works and lives in Dulwich, south London. He is represented by the Alan Cristea Gallery, London and the New Art Centre, Wiltshire. He was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2011 Birthday Honours for services to art.
In October 2011, de Waal was asked to choose and describe music that inspires him in his work. Speaking about music he described how "you can get yourself into the loops of music... I did a huge porcelain wall - 500 porcelain vessels - and there are rhythms in that wall that completely come out of baroque music. More recently there’s installations where things are in very minimalist, black lead-lined boxes, 12 of them in a row with the same number of vessels in each but they're arranged in different ways. That’s the porcelain equivalent of Steve Reich's systems music! It’s the same notes and the same tones repeated and just slightly different each time and it only makes sense if you’ve got all of it. One of them by itself is just a black box with a few pots in it." The playlist includes Keith Jarrett, Johann Sebastian Bach, John Adams and Franz Schubert.
Awards and honours
- 2011 Ondaatje Prize, winner, The Hare with Amber Eyes
- 2011 JQ Wingate Prize, shortlist, The Hare with Amber Eyes
- 2010 Costa Book Awards, winner (Biography), The Hare with Amber Eyes
- 2003 Silver Medal, World Ceramic Exposition, Korea
- 2000-2002 Leverhulme Special Research Fellowship
- 1998 British Council Award
- 1996 London Arts Board Individual Artists Award
- 1996 Fellow of Royal Society of Arts
- 1991-1993 Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation Scholarship
- British Council
- Interview with John Tusa, BBC Radio 3
- Ceramics: Art and Perception, No. 54, 2003.
- The Guardian 12 February 2011, "Edmund de Waal: A life in arts"
- Curriculum Vitae for THINK TANK
- de Waal, Edmund.The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance. Vintage, 2011, pg. 1. ISBN 978-0-09-953955-1.
- de Waal, Edmund.The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance. Vintage, 2011, pg. 3. ISBN 978-0-09-953955-1.
- List of solo exhibitions
- de Waal, Edmund. Bernard Leach. Tate Publishing, 1998. ISBN 978-1-85437-227-7.
- University of Westminster
- Twentieth Century Ceramics, London, Thames and Hudson, 2003.
- The London Gazette: . 11 June 2011.
- "Edmund de Waal chooses the music that inspires him in his work". Phaidon.com, October 2011.
- Twentieth Century Ceramics, Thames and Hudson, 2003
- De Waal's website
- Ceramics: Art and Perception, No. 54. 2003
- The Hare with Amber Eyes: a Hidden Inheritance, Chatto & Windus in the UK and Farrer, Straus and Giroux in New York, 2010
- Alan Cristea Gallery website
- "Edmund de Waal on Proust: The writer behind the hare" - article of April 1, 2011