Review: The Hare with Amber Eyes – Edmund de Waal

hare with amber eyesEdmund 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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26 thoughts on “Review: The Hare with Amber Eyes – Edmund de Waal

  1. Interesting review, of especial interest to me as just down the road is the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, home (+ of the lavish collection) of Baroness Béatrice which she left to the nation. E de Waal’s memoir promises to fill in some more background. And I love netsuke; some lovely ones in the V&A …


    • Minnie – thanks for visiting. Well, I didn’t know the Ephrussis until reading this book – interesting that they crop up all over the place. I must go to the V&A again – its years since I was last there and I understand its had quite a make-over since.


  2. What a lovely idea for a book! I think it is important to document the special history of family heirlooms…I recently was executor for an elderly lady with no family and in the process of packing up her estate (which, bless her heart, mostly went to the Lost Dogs Home and other animal charities) I often wondered about the provenance of some pieces.
    I’ve got a little notebook about my special things, where I’ve simply recorded whose they were and why they mean something to me.


    • Lisa – thanks for visiting. The book has been reviewed in several newspapers and has made quite an impression – book of the year by several reviewers. It at least made me find out more about netsuke – lots of interesting illustrations on the web.


  3. Thank you for a delightful find. I have forwarded the link to my husband as he knows people who collect this fascinating art form. It goes hand in hand with the Bonsai he does and even youngest was amazed at the detailed carvings. I had a great time wondering through the links you provided.


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  5. What an intriguing sounding book, Tom. Not quite the same, but a book I love is called Generations, by Dianne Bell. I hope I haven’t mentioned it before, but it is about how objects are passed down through the female line in families. One of the chapters is called “Darryl got the farm and mum got the pearls”. As I recollect, there are chapters on textiles, jewellery, pianos etc. It’s not quite the longitudinal story that this is, but she interviews many families and a family might pop up in a couple of chapters. Different as I say and with a very different intent, but it has that same sense of family history through objects. It was published about 1988 and I still feel warm whenever I think of it.


    • Hi sue – thanks for the comment. Generations sounds a very interesting book. I only wish I had been passed down something really valuable like a house or some rare diamonds. I shall look up the book.


  6. Thank you for your insightful review which I stumbled on this morning quite by accident. I am currently ensconced in de Waal’s book and am enjoying it thoroughly. It is a book which combines several of my deep interests – biography, 20th century history, art and Japan. And as you point out, the craftsmanship of the author as a ceramicist transfers well to his craftsmanship as a researcher and writer.


    • Ed – thanks for visiting. Its pretty good isn’t it. I’ve never heard of Edmund de Waal before but he’s obviously quite a big deal in the world of ceramics.


  7. I loved loved loved this book. Such an example of a well-done memoir. I particularly liked his larger, concluding point that in the face of great loss of family treasures, stories are also things, and they, too, can be passed down through the generations.


    • Sarah – thanks for visiting. Its a very good book isn’t it. I think Edmund de Waal could win a few prizes for this one. Its good to look up photos of the netsuke and find out what he’s talking about but no doubt you’ve done this already


  8. I have seen some positive reviews of this book in the papers recently and have been thinking of reading it, so it was good to see that you have enjoyed it. It looks quite fascinating.


  9. I heard your story via the BBC radio and was fascinated by your voice and could tell the passion for the book (reasons) were extrordinarly coming through the interview…I love that station…so alive with authors, music, etc…
    looking forward to the library getting your book on its shelves…
    always wondered why people collect things…as I am a big collector of dolls from garage sales, 2nd hand thrift stores…i restore their hair, new clothing…and have left them to my daughters of where I bought them, etc…but I have yet to find a native doll (I am Haudenosaunee) of my clan…nothing out there…too old to take up that beautiful art…


  10. then u must know of our own potter Steve Smith of Six Nations? Steve’s pottery is well known throughout the world…fascinating work and depth of color and design…
    I wish I could see a pronunciation below the words “netsuke” and your last name…when I went to the library after hearing your interview…didn’t have any of the book titles correct, nor the last name of author…egads! it sounded like “netscape” and Duvall for the last name…

    sorry about that…


  11. I picked this one up on my kindle recently, but haven’t yet got to it. It does sound very good. It’s selling well as best I can tell – something of a surprise hit.

    Lovely illustrations. It’s interesting that de Waal chose not to include any pictures of the netsuke in the book itself. Does he say why not?


    • Max, that’s a question I’ve never understood. Interesting that you’ve got it on Kindle – I favour that option myself these days, but the printed book is quite special and contains some interesting photographs


  12. Interesting review. The story of the netsuke is incredible.

    As far as Proust is concerned, I understand that Charles Ephrussi was a good friend of his but that Charles Haas was the model for Charles Swann.
    How great it must be to think someone of your family was Proust’s intimate friend. I wonder what Edmund de Waal thought when he discovered it.


    • Bookaroundthecorner – Yes, a family connection like that is quite special isn’t it. I accept that Proust probably didn’t model Charles Swann on Ephrussi, despite the claims in the book.


  13. I have an iPad with a kindle app on it. It makes books with images a much more appealing proposition than on the Kindle proper where I tend to read pure text books (which to be fair is the vast bulk of what I read).


    • Max – I have to say, I do miss colour and illustrations. I assume the next generation Kindle will be a great advance on the current one – assuming the technology allows e-paper to develop as Amazon would like.


  14. Pingback: Collecting 1 | Carlartco's Blog

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