Edmund de Waal threw his first pot aged five, having pestered his father for days to be allowed to accompany him to an evening class in Lincoln. 45 years later, he says, he can still recall the transformative feeling that occurred when he was first faced with a pottery wheel; indeed it is the same sensation that comes over him when he sits at the wheel today. “The rest of the world falls away,” he told Desert Island Discs in 2012, “I get joy, I get this absolute sense of this being a really very sane thing to do.” Today he is renowned as Britain’s foremost ceramic artist, his show Atmosphere is currently at Turner Contemporary, and the first comprehensive survey of his work, titled Edmund de Waal, is out now, published by Phaidon.
“The rest of the world falls away. I get joy, I get this absolute sense of this being a really very sane thing to do” — Edmund de Waal
Despite being born into a family of intellectuals who prized the written word above physical creation, throughout his school career, degree in English at Cambridge and beyond, de Waal never wavered in his ambition to make things. And of course his background informs his art. Intellectuality is intertwined into the creation of his pots; his journey as a potter has not simply been to master the wheel, but about researching his material, considering the story of stoneware and porcelain and reconsidering the historians, such as Bernard Leach, whose writings had been accepted as the definitive standpoint on clay. His time in Japan inspired both a move away from stoneware into porcelain and also his multi-award winning novel, The Hare with Amber Eyes, in which de Waal explores the history of his family through a collection of 264 netsuke, miniature 12th century carvings he inherited from his great uncle. Both in writing and making, he works to create pieces that are “rigorous but humane” – always exquisitely crafted, always imbued with passion and truth.
Success was a long time coming for de Waal, but when it did – following his first solo show in 1995, held at Egg Boutique in Belgravia – it was overnight. It was in these first shows that he started to group his pots together, into “cargoes”, where individual pots became a part of a wider story, interacting with each other and with the wider space into which they are placed. He put them behind glass, under the floor, half concealed in cupboards, 80 feet in the air, around the edge of a dome at the V&A. Aged 5, he refused to add garish colours or patterns to his first pot, choosing instead to paint it white, and this visual asceticism remains to this day. For Atmosphere, his pots float in their frosted glass boxes in stark shades of white, cream, grey and celadon, reflecting and echoing the sky and the sea, the clouds and the rain that shifts behind them. de Waal is a potter, a maker of pots, but his recalibration of the domestic material we use every day tells a contemporary and timeless story.