Edmund de Waal is a renowned ceramic artist who’s work has been exhibited in Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert Museum. He can trace his ancestry back to a wealthy Ukrainian family who made their fortune from grain exporting and later banking, and who had spacious and luxurious homes in Vienna, Tokyo and Paris. When Edmund inherited a collection of 264 tiny Japanese netsuke carvings from his Uncle Ignace, he felt prompted to investigate their place in the family history. The Hare With Amber Eyes is the result.
The book opens with De Waal studying in Tokyo in 1991 while on a two year scholarship, visiting his Uncle Iggie (Ignace) in his home in Tokyo, which he shares with Jiro, his partner of 41 years. Ignace has a wonderful collection of netsuke which has been in the family since the late 19th century. Three years later, Uncle Iggie dies, and Jiro writes and signs a document bequeathing the netsuke to Edmund once Jiro himself has gone.
When Edmund eventually owns the netsuke he finds himself greatly intrigued by the history of this remarkable collection, and realises that all he really knows are a few anecdotes, which become thinner in the telling. The only answer is to carry out a proper investigation into their story –
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. There is no easy story in legacy. What is remembered and what is forgotten? There can be a chain of forgetting, the rubbing away of previous ownership as much as the slow accretion of stories. What is being passed on to me with all these small Japanese objects?
The collection originates with Charles Ephrussi, who lived in Paris. The family were the greatest grain exporters in the world and had their own coat of arms and had taken many steps away from “those wagons of wheat creaking in from the Urkaine” until they were bankers and financiers. Many family biographies rely on speculation and anecdote but as Edmund traces the ghosts of this time during his visits to Paris, it is evident that this family history has been preserved in letters and documents and is far more reliable than many similar attempts to capture the past.
Charles was an incredibly wealthy young man and had the freedom to do what he liked with his money. He travels Europe collecting works of art and furnishing his grand house in Paris. Charles was a member of the exclusive artistic salons of the time, and knew literary and artistic figures, including Marcel Proust who based his character Charles Swann on him. The preface to Proust’s early study of Ruskin dedicates the book to “M Charles Ephrussi, always to good to me”. Charles bought paintings by Manet, Degas, Monet, Sisley, Renoir and many other impressionists. There was a great interest in all things Japanese and before long he acquired the collection of netsuke which is the subject of this book.
As we go into the 20th century, the collection of netsuke is passed to Edmund’s grandparents in Vienna, and we read of the opulent lifestyle so abruptly brought to a close with the unification of Germany and Austria under Hitler. These events are immediately followed by persecution of the Ephrussis along with many other Jewish families. The bank is sequestered by the Nazi regime and their opulent house is ransacked and looted, with the family being allocated just two small rooms at the back of the house.
Their Aryan servant Anna is employed by the Nazis to pack up the household’s belongings into crates, but Anna takes it upon herself to hide the netsuke, three or four at a time, in hear apron pocket. When Edmund’s grandmother returns to Vienna after the war (they had managed to escape to Britain just as doors were closing), she meets up with Anna again, who returns the netsuke to her. These little Japanese figures have had a chequered history indeed and they now seem firmly destined to eventually end up in London with Edmund, despite a long period when they were passed to his Uncle Iggie in Tokyo.
Edmund de Waal has turned out to be a more than satisfactory caretaker for the next stage of the journey of these little Japanese carvings. They already have a long and tumultuous history but are currently at rest in Edmund’s North London home.
The Hare with Amber Eyes is a lovely book. I have read similar accounts of family history where too much is assumed, where scenes are guessed at, conversations created where none could possible be recalled, and personalities are elaborated until they are far too larger than life. Edmund de Waal seems to be a very careful writer. He has only written about what he knows and what he can prove from primary sources. This gives the book a far greater sense of authenticity than many others. In addition, as an artist himself and a creator of fine porcelain objects, he is well suited to trace the course through of these netsuke over the last 150 years – he is wholly equipped to understand the meaning of such things and is adept at communicating his love for them with his readers.
All this matters because my job is to make things. How objects get handled, used and handed on is not just a mildly interesting question for me. It is my question. I have made many, many thousands of pots. I am very bad at names, I mumble and fudge, but I am good on pots. I can remember the weight and balance of a pot, and how its surface works with its volume. I can read how and edge creates tension or loses it . . . I can see how it works with the objects that sit nearby. How it displaces a small part of the world around it.
The book is nicely produced and is illustrated with in-text photographs of Edmunds family and the places they lived in. The only omission is pictures of the netsuke themselves. Fortunately a few images of his collection are online here and here.
See a video of Edmund de Waal talking about the ceramic collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum here
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