Photography for Prospect by Sarah M Lee

Edmund de Waal: Britain's refugee policy makes you want to weep

The potter has spent his life exploring heritage through precious objects. He speaks to Hella Pick about how the wheel of history turns
July 21, 2022

“I have been making pottery all my life and in terms of identity, who I am and what I do, there is something very straightforward about sitting down at a potter’s wheel with a piece of clay and making something out of it. Transforming something is pretty much the alpha and omega of my life.” Edmund de Waal was six years old when he discovered his passion for pottery. It has never left him, but it has not monopolised him: he is now a well-known writer as well as a pre-eminent potter. It has triggered deep research into his colourful yet often painful Jewish family history, fostered a preoccupation with the meaning of exile, and has led him to a philosophy where curiosity, movement and transformation are guiding principles.

A conversation with de Waal is exhilarating, wide-ranging, provocative and never long enough to explore all the ideas and reflections that emerge. What moves him to assert, for example, that “much of what I make and what I write centres on belonging, loss and exile,” and why has he titled his current exhibition at Waddesdon Manor, home to the Rothschild collection, “We Live Here, Forever Taking Leave”? (It is on until 30th October.) Objects, displacement, transience are concepts that recur in his work. I want to understand why he regards objects as the storytellers of history and the keys to human behaviour.

During a recent morning spent with de Waal in his studio in west Norwood, an area of London tucked behind Brixton, we dance around these issues, but also talk about his upbringing and later switch to politics and the iniquities of Brexit. The artist’s studio is not easy to find. At one end of a courtyard shared with a commercial company, there is an anonymous grey door. I ring the bell, the door opens, and I am encircled by de Waal’s welcoming arms. Inevitably, the conversation starts with pottery but soon moves on to the genesis of his bestselling book, The Hare with Amber Eyes, and his most recent Letters to Camondo. We tackle his Library of Exile project and the Waddesdon installations that will find a permanent home in Israel. We talk about the Ephrussis, his Jewish family who built their fortune in antisemitic Odesa, Ukraine, before emigrating to Paris. We talk about assimilation and integration, about the nature of faith.

“Emptiness is not remotely negative”: pots ready for firing in de Waal’s studio, south London “Emptiness is not remotely negative”: pots ready for firing in de Waal’s studio, south London

“Emptiness is not remotely negative”: pots ready for firing in de Waal’s studio, south London

“I am a lapsed everything,” de Waal says, only half-laughing. “That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in quite a lot of things. I am still trying to work out where I belong.” He has inbuilt charm and is diffident, always choosing his words carefully. “It’s not searching for a place that you can identify as a single home. It is displacement that seems to me a real habitation. I don’t know if this makes any sense to you? But to me it feels endlessly liminal, on the border between this place and that place, between this faith and that faith, in making pots or writing books. It’s that sort of threshold feeling.”

De Waal traces his links to the Ephrussi family through his father and his grandmother Elizabeth. Paradoxically, his father Victor, whose parents had emigrated to Britain from Vienna, converted to Christianity and became chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral and later dean of Canterbury. Edmund was brought up Christian. “The Jewish side of the family was put on one side,” he says. “It was never a central part of family discussion.” Yet it is his search to understand his Jewish family’s achievements, sufferings and migrations—what he describes as “displacement”—that propels his work.

We find ourselves in a huge white rectangular space with skylights above and scattered ­tables serving as repositories for creations in various stages of installation. Some of the walls also display work in progress. Adjoining smaller rooms house his kilns and glazes. Environmental concerns are not forgotten. “Next time you come here this studio will be transformed. We are changing the whole footprint… changing the holes of the water supply and giving it a green, solar roof.”

De Waal takes Sarah Lee, the photographer, and me upstairs to an untidy library, leading to a comfortable study where most of his writing is done. One wall displays an extensive installation of his pots grouped on shallow shelves. To the casual eye they look very similar in shape, size and with the same white glaze. But de Waal’s art is not casual. His pots need to be understood as translations of poems into a language that de Waal has mastered. “I am not exercised about the outside of a pot,” he says. “The interior of a pot is a very rich place in which to explore things. Emptiness is not remotely negative.” This takes him back to the many years he spent in Japan mastering pottery, and conversations with his great uncle Iggy and with Jiro, Iggy’s Japanese companion. “All the philosophy in Japan is about the inside of vessels. The Zen philosophy is all about how to understand space.” He laughs: “It’s a little early in the day to talk metaphysics!”

But he continues. “There is this straightforward, very bodily pleasure in making pots. You have got the beautiful plasticity of the clay and the movement of your hands. Your breathing comes together and it all becomes a sort of rhythmical exploration of interior space. And having made the pots, they have to go through the extraordinary process of firing in the kiln, and that transforms the material again. That’s where all the other things come in: breakage and danger.” He sees it all as a “profound metaphor for life, and yet at the same time incredibly straightforward, as the pot from which you drink your first morning cup of coffee and your last drink at night. This beautiful history goes all the way back to the beginnings of us as human beings, about making a vessel to hold water or for burying someone’s ashes. All these great images of human life are constructed with vessels.”

We turn to the books. What does writing give him? How does it relate to his pottery? “That’s such a fiendish question,” he responds. “It’s fiendish because the writing doesn’t map the potting, and the potting doesn’t map the writing. I am not trying to make the same effect when I write and when I pot. The two things in my life co-exist in a kind of endless fissile territory desperately wanting to bring into language an emotion, a thought, a history. That urge to write doesn’t go away. And some of the things I want to write about I also want to make.”

The interior of a pot is a very rich place in which to explore things

De Waal describes his 2015 book on the history of porcelain, The White Road, as his “mid-life crisis.” He was 50 years old and had been making pots for 45 years. “I couldn’t work out why I still absolutely needed to make pots. So writing that book became a kind of pilgrimage into all the places that mattered to me.” De Waal only uses porcelain for his pottery. Ever the romantic, he traced porcelain fragments to the ancient Silk Road, Marco Polo’s travels, on to Meissen and now modernism. “This white material has all these plural histories and I felt I could belong in that.”

As an author de Waal won a worldwide audience with 2010’s The Hare with Amber Eyes. The book was triggered by a collection of netsuke—miniature ivory and wood sculptures of animals, birds and people that originated in 17th-century Japan. From his great uncle Iggy, de Waal inherited the netsuke put together by the Ephrussi family from generation to generation and from place to place. Here were objects that carried with them the history of his family. “Iggy had given me a story and I had to work it out,” he says. The netsuke would be the vessel that propelled him to unravel the lives of the humans who acquired them.

His dearly loved grandmother, Elizabeth, had already taught him fragments of family history. Typical of refugees, his own father preferred silence about the past. It took deWaal six years and research visits to Paris, Odesa and Vienna before he produced a first draft. He describes how he took one chapter to Felicity Bryan, his friend and agent who died in 2020. He is emotional as he recalls her verdict: “It’s very interesting. But it simply won’t do.” Still, she encouraged him to persevere and the finished book was published by Chatto & Windus. “But Felicity did not think it would turn into a bestseller. So when that happened it was just bizarre, utterly bizarre. In my innocence I thought ‘I am writing about the diaspora and I am not sure if anyone will relate to it.’ And then I start getting letters from all these people with parallel, painful interconnected stories of their own families.”

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Handled with care: at his London studio, Edmund de Waal shows Hella Pick an 11th-century Chinese bowl mended in Japan in the 17th century

The book has sold millions. But de Waal takes special pleasure in the Austrian government’s selection of it for last year’s Eine Stadt, Ein Buch (one city, one book) programme, which every year gives away 100,000 copies to the Viennese public. De Waal sees this as a symbolic restoration of the Ephrussi presence in the city. “It is an incredible, incredible honour.” He was invited to Vienna for the event. “It was a very emotional moment and I reflected about the meaning of restitution—about how, for example, you feel good when a sequestered painting is given back. But how much more extraordinary [for] Austria to take a family back it had driven out.”

His most recent book, last year’s Letters to Camondo, tells the story of the family who lived in Paris a few doors from the Ephrussis. It focuses on Moïse de Camondo, an Ottoman-born Sephardi Jew, who filled his palatial home with treasures. After his son Nissim was killed fighting for France in the First World War, he bequeathed the house and its contents to the French nation and decreed it should be left untouched in his memory. Moïse died in 1935. Most of the next generation were gassed in Auschwitz.

De Waal started the book during lockdown. After conducting a series of imaginary conversations with Moïse, he decided to write about the Camondos in the form of fictional letters to him. “I could be quizzical or amused or cross or pissed off or whatever. It allows you to really talk to someone, and he couldn’t talk back!”

The book also turned de Waal’s mind to the meaning of memorials. “Moïse left his home as a memorial to his son, who died serving France. Then his daughter and grandchildren are deported to Auschwitz and it becomes an unintentional memorial of incredible power… So there is this dissonance in the house about what a memorial means. You try to make one thing, and the world changes and the memorial has a completely different meaning.” Overcome with emotion, de Waal says the Camondo museum in Paris “is now the only Jewish collector’s house that has been left intact. There is no other place in Europe where everything is as it was in 1935. And that’s because Moïse gave it to France so it wasn’t looted by the Nazis, and then his children were murdered by them in Auschwitz. How can it not be a place of huge emotional and cultural complexity?”

It strikes me that de Waal rarely uses the word “refugee.” He prefers to speak of “exiles,” and is proud of his Library of Exile, which was exhibited at the British Museum and has made other stops on its way to Mosul, northern Iraq, where it will remain as another form of memorial—one to exiled writers, whose books comprise the library. It will also be a memorial of renewal in a city where the famous Mosul library was destroyed by Islamic State in 2015.

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We have been talking for over an hour and a half. Coffee beckons. But not before we take a brief plunge into politics. Britain is where de Waal lives with his wife and three children. Yet he is a creature of European culture and loathes Brexit. “I am 100 per cent European. The EU is a great bulwark against war and totalitarianism. I can’t believe we have removed ourselves so hideously and toxically.” Without pausing he plunges into a furious condemnation of the government’s decision to dispatch asylum seekers to Rwanda. “This is grotesque. It is a bonfire of true British values and our embrace of other cultures. It makes you want to weep.”

De Waal mentions an autumn exhibition at the Hayward Gallery that will explore contemporary ceramic art. He will show an installation he calls Atmosphere, a series of suspended vitrines with vessels inside, best seen lying on a yoga mat. It is an “ambitious” work first displayed 10 years ago at the Turner Contemporary in Margate. “Ceramics,” he says, “are having a very colourful moment” and “people are only just catching up with the realisation that pottery is sculpture and sculpture is pottery.” He is emphatic: “Pottery has to be taken with the same seriousness as sculpture has always been taken. What I do is sculpture; it is pottery and it is contemporary art!” Another smile: “End of polemic.” And time to leave the studio.