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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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser