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December 19 2011

Edmund de Waal: a passion for pots

Edmund de Waal's last book was an unlikely bestseller about a family heirloom. Now he's written a history of his first love, ceramics. Laura Barnett talks to him about life behind the wheel

When Edmund de Waal was five, he asked his dad to take him to a pottery class. They went. He made a pot. He decided that this was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. "I remember making that first pot," he says, "and thinking, that's it – that's what my life's going to be about: making pots. I am really lucky because I had that moment. I've never taken it for granted."

Now 47, De Waal has been a potter and ceramic artist for 25 years; respected for decades, but only truly famous beyond the pottery world since the publication, in June last year, of his book The Hare with Amber Eyes. In synopsis, the book – a history of a set of Japanese netsuke, or miniature carved kimono toggles, bequeathed to him by his urbane great-uncle Iggie – sounds like something destined to gather dust next to Fly Fishing by JR Hartley. The reality is anything but dry or arcane: beautifully written and meticulously researched, the book sweeps effortlessly from fin-de-siècle Paris to wartime Vienna to American-occupied Tokyo. Five thousand copies were originally printed; the book has now sold around a quarter of a million copies, been translated into 24 languages, and a film adaptation is in the offing.

When I meet De Waal at his south London studio – pristine white walls, sloping glass ceiling, four potters' wheels in a neat row – I ask him if the book's success has taken him by surprise. He laughs gently. "What do you think? It's unbelievable. Extraordinary."

De Waal's own work as a potter is not central to The Hare with Amber Eyes, though the book is underpinned by his potter's feel for the importance of everyday objects, and their relationship with the people who own them. In his most recent book, however, De Waal has returned to his primary obsession. The Pot Book, published by Phaidon, is a weighty compendium of more than 300 pots and ceramic artworks, dating from the third millennium BC to the present day.

If The Hare with Amber Eyes is a delicate miniature, honing in on one family and one set of objects, then this is a large-scale, ambitious work, painting the history of ceramics with the broadest of brush strokes. We jump from a soup tureen emblazoned with the face of US artist Cindy Sherman dressed as Madame de Pompadour, to a creamy-white Japanese sake bottle; from a rough vase thrown by Picasso in 1950 and painted with large-bottomed female nudes, to a room in Berlin's Charlottenburg Palace decked out in brash gold and porcelain.

The pots are ordered alphabetically, one colour photograph and short history, written by De Waal, to a page. This ordering is at the heart of the book, which has taken him five years to research. "It's completely serendipitous," he says. "You pick it up, and there's a contemporary Chinese ceramic artist here on the left, and an amazing unknown art-deco Czech person on the right. You end up with some fantastically weird and wonderful combinations. It's a book that anyone can pick up – a teenager, or a student, or an art lover, or whatever – and get completely taken over by how broad and deep the history of pots actually is."

'Pottery is more than a tea cup'

That early revelation at a potter's wheel has made De Waal something of an evangelist. He had great trouble whittling down the 700 objects and artists he originally wanted to include in the book; of those who did make it in, he counts the Vienna-born potter Lucie Rie among his favourites. "She was a Jewish Viennese emigre who came to London in 1938, and had her flat packed up and brought with her," he says. "She made this really beautiful body of work: very austere, very exacting. When you've got a Lucie Rie pot on your table, or near you, you always feel slightly shabby."

At the heart of The Pot Book is De Waal's long-held belief that ceramics have been marginalised – thought of as purely decorative and not compelling works of art in their own right. He admits that things are changing: the 2009 redevelopment of the V&A's ceramics galleries has boosted the art form's profile, along with major recent exhibitions of artists such as Grayson Perry. But there is still, he thinks, a way to go before pottery is taken as seriously as painting or sculpture. "There are still deeply conventional people out there in the art world who are trying to guard the barricades. They're keeping pottery out. But there are also people within the ceramics world who go, 'Well, that's a bit arty. Can you drink from it?' What the book is saying is that there's this enormous cultural richness and scope about what pots can be – which is more than just a tea cup."

Alongside purely functional vessels (ancient amphora, a pretty 18th-century Sèvres tea set), The Pot Book includes challenging works by young ceramic artists. There's 35-year-old Caroline Slotte, from Finland, who seeks out old willow-pattern plates from junk shops and layers them together to create deep, intricate designs; and Britain's Tamsin van Essen, also 35, whose unsettling "psoriasis" jars use cracked glaze to resemble flaking, puckered skin.

A large number of the featured artists are women – many more than you'd find in the average art history compendium. "I haven't done a count," says De Waal, "but yes, there are a lot of women. I think it's to do with the fact that historically, pottery has been linked with eating and drinking and the domestic rituals of looking after people, with nurture. There are still cultures where you have to be a woman to make pots. When I was travelling in Ethiopia, for instance, and my wife introduced me as a potter, it was met with howls of laughter."

A quirk of alphabetical ordering places Chinese artist Ai Weiwei on the third page of the book, with his 2006 work Coloured Vases: a group of 51 ancient Chinese vessels, daubed with brightly coloured household paint. It feels like a timely statement about the fact that ceramics can be used to convey contentious political messages. De Waal agrees: "It's quite a polemical book. One of the things that I really hate is this idea that pots are a dull, suburban craft. They're absolutely in there in the middle of really complicated social and political moments. People use them because they're the Trojan horse: they're everyday, quotidian objects, so people think they're harmless. But they're a brilliant way of saying very profound things."

A thousand years of porcelain

His own artworks, while not overtly political, are about taking everyday objects and presenting them in a new light. While he was still at school in Canterbury, De Waal was apprenticed to the potter Geoffrey Whiting. He went on to study English at Cambridge, but then returned to turning out beautiful, functional pots (such as the heavy blue-grey coffee cups, pockmarked like lunar rubble, that we're drinking from as we talk) before moving into what he reluctantly terms "installations". "I absolutely hate the word, but I haven't found a better one."

These installations, for the most part, consist of display cabinets – some small and plain as picture-frames; others huge and compartmentalised, like kitchen dressers – filled with pots of varying sizes, each one glazed in milky white, or yellow, or gun-metal grey. He has shown them all over the world, most significantly at Tate Britain and the V&A museum, where, to mark the opening of the new ceramics galleries, he had a huge, red metal disc slung from the ceiling, and filled it with pots.

Next up is an installation for a faculty building in Cambridge: De Waal plans to embed a group of pots in the ground, beneath a glass floor. He's also writing a new book – a history of the colour white. "It's a story of porcelain over 1,000 years," he says, "but it's actually about why white matters. What white means." He looks around his bright-white studio; he smiles. "I am slightly obsessed with white."

Why does he think pots have remained so appealing across the centuries? He is silent for a long time. Then he says: "I think that there is a very, very core experience about holding a pot, about having something which is that scale in your hand. For me, it's like asking, 'Why do we still have a relationship with song?' You'd answer that by saying, 'Well before I even knew, my mum would sing to me'; it's part of what defines you as a person. Pots are that, too. They're with you all the way along."

• The Pot Book is published by Phaidon. An illustrated edition of The Hare with Amber Eyes, published by Chatto & Windus, is out now; also available as an ebook. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 12 2011

Museum of masterpieces

From Kristin Scott Thomas's Parisian scene to Philip Pullman's much-loved Monet, celebrities and big names in the art world talk us through their favourite works

January 05 2011

In pictures: Costa book awards 2010

As this year's winners of the Costa book awards are announced, get up to speed with all the category winners ahead of the overall prize announcement at the end of January

January 04 2011

Bright eyes on the Costa book prize

Epic family memoir sparked by some miniature heirlooms installed as favourite for £30,000 prize

A book that uses 264 delicate Japanese carvings to tell the extraordinary story of a family living through tumultous events in Paris and Vienna was tonight named winner of one of the UK's most prestigious book awards. Immediately installed as the bookmakers' favourite to win the overall prize later this month, Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes was the winner of the Costa biography prize.

The Costas aim to reward enjoyable reads, giving prizes in five categories. The other winners announced this evening are Maggie O'Farrell who won the novel award for The Hand That First Held Mine; Jo Shapcott took the poetry prize for Of Mutability; Kishwar Desai won the first novel prize for Witness the Night; and Jason Wallace's Out of Shadows was declared best children's book.

De Waal's memoir of family and inheritance has been the subject of widespread acclaim. In something of a rare agreement, sisters AS Byatt and Margaret Drabble named it among their books of the year – as did many others including Julian Barnes and Stephen Frears - and the Guardian heralded its virtues in an "In praise of...." leader article in November.

De Waal, a ceramic artist, said: "I am completely overwhelmed. When I wrote the book I had no expectation that any one but my family would read it so the idea of it winning this prize is completely out of anything I could have expected. I really thought I'd be back making my pots by now, my life has been cheerfully derailed by all of this."

The book begins in Japan with De Waal inheriting a wonderful collection of small Japanese carvings – netsuke – from his uncle Iggie. They have been in the family for more than a century, prompting de Waal to embark on a mission to discover his forebears' history and tell it through the objects.

It has taken de Waal some five years of researching, travelling and writing. "It has been completely driven by obsession really," he said. "I now know vast amounts about the Dreyfus affair, I know vast amounts about vitrines in Paris at the turn of the century and I know more than I could ever want to know about about nazi bureaucracy in 1938. But that's the thing, you can't control where research takes you and I didn't have any ability to control it, it was so compulsive as a journey."

Maggie O'Farrell's win – her first major book prize – will be particularly pleasing for her many, many fans. It is the former journalist's fifth novel and commentators have described it as a distinct gear-shift from her being a writer of very good mass-market novels aimed at women to being a writer of literary fiction.

"When I heard I was on the shortlist I was thrilled and I thought that's kind of enough," she said. "I was really shocked to have found out I'd won – genuinely shocked. I'd been doing that thing of, 'It's not about winning, it's about taking part.'"

The novel cuts between two time frames; the present day with two new parents struggling to get a grip on the change in their lives, and 50 years earlier in bohemian Soho, where the newly-arrived Lexie Sinclair throws herself into the London art scene.

Jason Wallace's win will be heartening to those who have been plugging away for years, unsuccessfully seeking recognition for their literary brilliance. Wallace decided he wanted to be an author aged 17. Now in his forties, the freelance web designer took his story set in a Zimbabwean private school to 100 agents and publishers before it was finally taken on by Andersen Press.

Jo Shapcott, who is also president of the Poetry Society and a professor of creative writing at Royal Holloway, University of London, wins for her first volume of poetry in more than a decade – a gap partly the result of her diagnosis and successful treatment for breast cancer. The poems are rooted in her experience, but Shapcott said it was not an autobiographical account of her illness. "I think the book meditates on mortality and all of us really have had a brush with mortality," she said.

Kishwar Desai, the wife of Labour peer Lord Desai, wins the debut novel prize for a story exposing the hidden scandal of female infanticide that still exists in India. "I wrote it in about a month because I was so angry," said Desai, who added that she was both thrilled and surprised to win. It will be the first in a series with uncoventional social worker Simran Singh as their central character.

The Costas started life as the Whitbread book awards in 1971 and took on the coffee shop name five years ago. Each writer wins £5,000. A judging panel chaired by broadcaster Andrew Neil – and including Elizabeth McGovern, Natasha Kaplinsky, Anneka Rice, Adele Parks and David Morrissey – will now decide the overall winner, who will be presented with a £30,000 prize on 25 January.

If the bookies are correct – William Hill make de Waal 6/4 favourite followed by O'Farrell at 3/1 – then De Waal would become the first biographer to win the top prize since Hilary Spurling for Matisse in 2005. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 11 2010

My hero Cy Twombly

'Twombly's sense of the erased, the partial, the lost and the fragmentary makes complete sense to me'

Cy Twombly is a painter of thinking aloud, of thoughts checked and then resumed, hesitancies and the rush of ideas. Twombly, now 82, is the great survivor of the heroic age of American painting, the generation of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Jackson Pollock, who upended what was expected in contemporary art. Somehow he has managed to continue to create profoundly affecting work without histrionics or hubris.

Twombly is known for his scribbles, great looping calligraphies of white on black, of white on white – or, in the more recent Bacchus series, swoops of carmine three metres high. His paintings are a mass of marks, erasures and words. Phrases come and go, lines are repeated until they become incantatory. Sometimes you read a fragmentary part of a poem, or an allusion to a classical text, only for it to be crossed out. There are puns and odd misspellings: erudition giving way to doodling at the back of the class. And this is what I love: the way that there is slippage between an intended epic expression and a failure to finish.In his work he has both the shopping list and the great list of ships sent to attack Troy.

Twombly's sense of the erased, the partial, the lost and the fragmentary makes complete sense to me. In the recent Tate retrospective there was a room that showed the series Nini's Paintings, made after the sudden death of the wife of his Italian gallerist. Landscapes of writing: a glacial blue and white version next to another of an umbrous brown. And standing in front of them they seemed one of the most moving reactions to loss possible: the way that in mourning we go back again and again to a memory, that we cannot close down the need to return.

He has just completed a ceiling for the Louvre. Above a gallery of classical statues hangs a fierce Mediterranean blue sky in which the planets glow and the names of Greek sculptors are inscribed. It is beautiful and it is surprising. That is enough. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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