A set of installations by the contemporary British ceramicist Edmund de Waal has gone on exhibit at a stately home deep in the English countryside. If de Waal's name sounds familiar, it might be because of his 2010 book, The Hare with Amber Eyes, which traces the fortunes of the artist's once-wealthy Jewish forebears. The book itself set off a chain of events that led to the exhibition.
To de Waal — a maker of delicate and mysterious porcelain works — objects tell stories. In The Hare with Amber Eyes, he writes, "How objects are handed on is all about story-telling. I am giving you this because I love you. Or because it was given to me. Because I bought it somewhere special. Because you will care for it. Because it will complicate your life. Because it will make someone else envious."
To de Waal, stories can also become objects, unreliably passed from hand to hand — like the stories that reached him of his vanished ancestors.
The hare in his book's title refers to one of the tiny Japanese netsuke figures de Waal inherited from his great-uncle, just about all that remains of the wealth of the Ephrussi family — European Jews at one time as rich and well-connected as the British Rothschilds.
De Waal's exhibition is housed at Waddesdon Manor, the historic country seat of the Rothschilds, now run by the Rothschild Foundation and Britain's National Trust.
It's a fabulous, 19th century faux-French chateau 50 miles from London, stuffed from its creaky floorboards up to the rafters with priceless porcelain, furniture, paintings and sculptures.
One of the curators read de Waal's book and realized he was a distant cousin of the Lord Jacob Rothschild. "The invitation came, then, from them, and also from Lord Rothschild, to do something here," de Waal explains, "to be in conversation with this house and these collections — and also with this shared Jewish history, European history, of collecting and Diaspora."
De Waal's installations are scattered among the ground floor rooms: white, or sometimes black, cylinders of wafer-thin porcelain, with occasional splashes of gold, arranged inside black-framed display cases called vitrines. Carefully placed throughout the manor's grand rooms, the space between the objects is as important as the objects themselves.
De Waal's skills and his aesthetic were honed during early study in Japan, and it's a kind of Zen Easter egg hunt looking for his ghostly, minimalist pieces tucked among the clocks, statuettes and rare Meissen porcelain that seem to fill every horizontal surface.
In the breakfast room, two vitrines sit on clear Perspex bases; they seem to hover above the marble-topped 18th century consoles. De Waal calls these pieces between two breaths.
"They sit opposite these incredible figures of animals, which were made in Meissen — tremendous, famous bits of porcelain," says de Waal. "And so it's simply a dialogue between me, as someone who sits down at my wheel and uses porcelain, and a wonderful, wonderful porcelain artist 300 years ago."
The vitrines, he says, are a new departure, inspired by the one that first held his netsuke figures that was purchased by the Parisian Ephrussi forebear (whom Proust used as a model for Charles Swann in Remembrance of Things Past).
De Waal says his Parisian and Viennese predecessors didn't seek objects just for their beauty — through their collections, they were seeking or asserting acceptance, trying to anchor themselves in societies which, it would become clear, never fully accepted them. What little of the Ephrussi fortune that survived the first world war was swept away in the second.
The Rothschild family made different decisions at history's pivot points and has emerged with its fortunes largely intact. Lord Rothschild, a tall man with an elegant air, viewed the exhibition on its opening day. He says the themes of collecting and belonging addressed in Waal's work resonate with his family, too.
Some visitors might say de Waal's minimalist forms don't really fit in the lavishly decorated manor. But Lord Rothschild says that's not the point: "I mean, do they look beautiful in the context of, say, this room? And if you look at how his pieces, here, answer that beautiful candle piece, there — I think it works very well, and it's very interesting, I think, to see them together."
De Waal says he sometimes thinks about how, but for a few turns of the karmic potter's wheel, a house like this might have been his. It has certainly brought home to him the scale of what was lost, he says.
But de Waal's real home is his art and his storytelling, "and that's much more important to me than the having of fabulous French furniture," he says.
But, he adds with a laugh: "Wouldn't mind a Degas, though — if anyone's gotten my Degas, wouldn't mind one of those back. Or a Manet! Or a Renoir!"
Edmund de Waal's work will be on display at Waddesdon Manor until Oct. 28.
Fiction and nonfiction releases from Per Petterson, William Gibson, Edmund de Waal and Wayne Koestenbaum.