Review: Edmund de Waal Contemporary at Waddesdon

Acclaimed author returns to pots in a new exhibition.

Edmund de Waal is an unlikely celebrity. Tall, thin and unassuming to the point of extinction, he seems, even at a private view surrounded by family and friends, to be always on the edge of the picture. This won't do, because, even if we put aside memories of last year's bestseller, the Hare with Amber Eyes, de Waal is still one of the foremost ceramicists of our age.

His exhibition, just opened at Rothschild-owned Waddesdon manor, near Aylesbury, is in many ways a response to the book's success, which won him the Costa biography award. Waddesdon, grand and as ridiculously opulent as a late Victorian mansion owned by the richest people in the world can be, is far from a family house. It was used most regularly as a party house for hunting gatherings, and in fact still is, in the winter off-season. But the Rothschilds and the Ephrussis, de Waal's ancestors who starred in his memoir, are interlinked families, and the house is bound up for him in the history he told.

He says he intended the exhibition “to be a way of thinking through, in visual terms, some of the ideas on belonging that drift through my book The Hare with Amber Eyes.” He insisted nothing was moved from the permanent collection to make way for the pots.

The result of this is that the ceramics are placed in conversation with other pieces of art in the house, making a charming mishmash of styles. One of the most memorable locations is an enormous Russian desk, complete with two clocks and a copious amount of black Japanese lacquer. de Waal called it “a desk to sign treaties on”. On it a vitrine is placed, with a series of stacked dark glazed pots, almost like sake cups. The comparison between the simple, understated but beautiful ceramics and the death-by-gilt desk is striking, indeed perhaps too striking, as many visitors miss it as they come through the door.

Vitrines are fashionable these days, but I'm not sure they are the ideal choice for De Waal's work, as they separate them from their surroundings when they should communicate with them. It is the first time he has used them in his work. The plates appear to be floating, which is effective, but the vitrines make the ceramics run the risk of being more museum pieces than living artworks. They also make it harder to see how the glaze reflects the surroundings.

Some of the vitrines are frosted so that you can only see a ghostly outline of the pot within, a deliberate attempt to reflect a sense of loss inherent in Jewish ancestry that nonetheless feels a bit frustrating.

It's a lovely exhibition, however, capable of enchanting people who previously thought plates were just for eating off as well as hardened ceramic fans. Particular favourites include the stack of white glazed plates with a gold one hidden in the pile, and the tiny smear of gold glaze on a rank of black glazed cups. Waddesdon itself is one of those places that have to be seen to be believed.

Photo: Paul Barker © The National Trust, Waddesdon Manor
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit