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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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood