Edmund de Waal tells Chris Harvey how his moving family memoir ‘The Hare With Amber Eyes’ inspired a powerful new project
A tentative Englishman: Edmund de Waal at his new British Library exhibition. Left, his great-grandparents, Emmy and Viktor Ephrussi
When Edmund de Waal embarked upon the seven-year writing project that became his captivating family memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes, he couldn’t have imagined how much it would change his life.
The son of an Anglican clergyman, who had grown up breathing the air of “medieval houses and cathedrals”, the potter and artist came face to face with a Jewish family history interrupted by the Nazis.
Tracing the journey of 264 miniature Japanese sculptures – netsuke – from the time they were bought by his greatgreat-uncle in Paris in the 1870s led him to Vienna and the story of his great-grandfather, who fled the Nazis in 1938, leaving behind a fortune – and a 19thcentury palace.
“My tentative Englishness felt very unsettled as I discovered more and more,” de Waal says as he shows me round his light, airy ceramics studio in south London, a free-flowing looseness to his speech and movements, hands that shape words.
His greatgrandfather, Viktor Ephrussi, was the scion of a banking dynasty that rivalled the Rothschilds; de Waal’s grandmother, Elisabeth, grew up in the Palais Ephrussi – at the heart of the Austrian capital. Viktor would die six months before V-E Day, in a rented suburban house in Tunbridge Wells, having been forced to sign over his bank shares to pay the “Reich Flight Tax” – which extorted nearly £3million in today’s money for “permission” to leave the country.
“I became part of a world of hundreds of thousands of people who had experienced diaspora, loss. It connected me to them,” de Waal says. He sold “an awful lot of books”, and as The Hare became a global success, de Waal travelled to promote it, meeting people who told him their own family stories. Over time, the idea for a new work began to form. His Library of Exile, which opens at the British Museum today, is a physical library with walls of porcelain filled with books by authors from 83 countries, who have all experienced exile.
There are nearly 1,500 volumes, which can be handled, read and written in on an ex libris bookplate. It has already shown in Venice and Dresden, and de Waal has been struck by the response to Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea – “It has thousands of names inside – it’s a book that goes very profoundly into people’s childhoods.”
Kerr, like de Waal’s father, Victor, now 91, was a child refugee from the approaching Holocaust. Despite assertions to the contrary by some during the Brexit debate, de Waal believes the British are “hugely sympathetic” to refugees.
“I think there’s a toxic, keep-them-out thing going on, which just doesn’t reflect the kind of decency of welcome that people do actually feel,” he says.
We have finished our tour and are drinking tea in a room de Waal uses for writing (a new book is in progress, but he’s not saying what it is yet). There are three of us; his grand basset hound Isla, who met me at the doorstep, likes to follow him around while he’s working and even has a bed in the room that holds his potter’s wheel – “the absolute centre of the world for me”.
Isla helps herself to the glass of water beside his chair, but de Waal doesn’t get cross with her: “She’s a rather entitled dog,” he admits. I should add here that de Waal, who is married with three grown-up children, is possibly the sweetest, most welcoming person I’ve ever interviewed.
There’s a beautiful vitrine filled with de Waal’s delicate porcelain celadon pots – A place made fast (2014) – hanging opposite, and a wall of large books beside us. It’s a sad irony that his Library of Exile arrives at a time when 800 libraries have closed in the UK in the past decade. Is it something we should be worried about? “Dear God, yes,” he says, passionately, “when you start to close libraries you are taking away an absolutely fundamental part of culture, one of the great foundation stones of society.”
The loss of his great- grandfather’s library, which contained thousands of volumes including many rare incunabula and was appropriated by the Nazis, was one of the things that kept gnawing at him when he was researching The Hare with Amber Eyes.
After the war, the Austrians returned 191 books – “I mean, it was nothing,” he says. The family also recovered some valuable tapestries, sold for school fees, and the Palais Ephrussi, which, having no wish to return to Vienna, they also sold, for $30,000 a few years after the war.
And they are now negotiating the return of a painting by the German artist Franz Adam worth around £10,000. “It was hanging on the walls of the Museum of Military History and in 1950, they realised ‘Oh, this is an Ephrussi painting, we should give it back… but actually we’re not going to, we’re going to give you 6,000 schillings (about £80). We’re going to keep it for ourselves.’ And they’ve finally decided they’re going to give it back to us, having done f--- all for 70 years.”
Three family portraits still hang in the Belvedere Gallery in the city. They were acquired in 1938, the year of the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany. Does he hold out hope that they will be returned? “I think they will eventually,” he says, and sighs, “speed is not Viennese.”
I wonder what he thinks of the treasures held in the British Museum that other countries want back, such as the Elgin Marbles, taken from the Parthenon in Ancient Greece? “I’m torn,” he says, “because things move in the world in complicated ways. And if we emptied the British Museum, we’d be emptying it of all the Chinese porcelain, Japanese jades and Persian treasures that are part of this whole beautiful, generative world of trade and conversation.”
The return of some pieces, he says, would “heal particular wounds”, such as the Benin bronzes – “they are objects of colonial pillage.”
We talk about the way things are looked after and restored. In a recent work, de Waal had a set of broken Meissen plates, smashed during the bombing of Dresden, repaired using the Japanese art of kintsugi, which traces the original cracks in silver and gold lacquer, making them part of the object’s history.
I want to know what he makes of restored paintings, such as the world’s most expensive artwork, the £450 million Salvator Mundi, which has been controversially attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and repainted: “I don’t think it’s by [Leonardo],” he says. “It’s a terrible painting. I’ve stood in front of it. I just thought it was naff. It looked like a knock-off schmaltzy Pre-raphaelite, not a good one.”
Knock-offs are not for de Waal, nor the factory workshops employed by artists such as Damien Hirst. Despite his team of assistants, he resists the idea that he would delegate any of the making of his pots. “Why would that happen?” he says in disbelief. “The fundamental thing for me is the joy of doing it.”
De Waal returned to Vienna last year for a family reunion of 40 relatives, many of them long lost, who had got in touch after The Hare with Amber Eyes was published. The netsuke collection, including the hare itself, is now on long-term loan to the Jewish Museum in the city.
It doesn’t include all 264 of the original netsuke; at the end of 2018, de Waal took the decision to sell off 79 of them, raising almost £100,000 for the Refugee Council.
I wonder how it feels to be without them. “I feel bereft,” he confesses. “I was very much, ‘This is the right thing to do’. But I really miss them.”