Korea, Choson Dynasty,
The Fitzwilliam Museum
... AS SEEN BY EDMUND DE WAAL
A lot of my three years at Cambridge reading English were spent at Kettle’s Yard and at the Fitzwilliam. I had come up straight from an eighteen-month pottery apprenticeship with a Leach school potter, Geoffrey Whiting. I had followed this with a few months in Japan, visiting famous kilns and elderly potters: my canon of favourite pots felt pretty secure and the Fitzwilliam had everything I needed. English slipware, small Chinese tenmoku teabowls, Medieval pitchers. It took me a long time to see beyond these pots into the other collections. When I started to look it changed the ground under my feet. I can still remember looking at eighteenth-century porcelain for the first time, rather than striding past the vitrines.
I’ve chosen three pots from the collection. I could have chosen a Samuel Palmer landscape, a Dutch still life of asparagus, all the Chinese porcelain, various bits of eighteenth-century furniture: these three have been wrung out of me.
The first is a giant charger from Japan. It is Imari ware from the late 17th century. Imari, with its intricate patterns of underglaze colour, overglaze enamel and gilding, became ubiquitous in European collections in the eighteenth century, the perfect porcelain to use in garnitures on furniture. This piece is unfinished, the blanks that would have held more peonies showing nothing but the porcelain itself. I love this. Apart from loving the site of white porcelain in itself, unfinished ceramics rarely survive - a few wasters from kiln sites, odd fused glazing accidents aside. This piece is as expressive as a sketch. Through these absences it shows how these great, grand confections of colour were put together.
My second piece is stoneware celadon mallet vase from Korea. Korean ceramics share so much with Chinese ceramics, but there is a quality that is subtly different. Here with this vase, echoing archaic Chinese bronzes that echoed the mallets used to beat cloth, you can feel affinities with Chinese court porcelains. But where the Chinese versions achieved a sort of glassy perfection, an untouchability of rarified splendour, here is a pot that leans. And in that tilt is a huge amount: it allows me to think about the potter as a kindred maker. Here is a pot, beautiful and austere certainly, but one that is not totally perfect. The magnificent Korean moon jar made in white porcelain gives me a similar frisson. I look at the way that the two great bowls have been joined together to make that vast volume and see the almost imperceptible signs of the join. It matters and does not matter simultaneously.
My third pot is a strange early teapot from Meissen. It is from the period when the first experiments by the failed alchemist Bottger to make porcelain in Europe had resulted in a red stoneware clay and a white porcelain body. Both were equally special: this teapot in ‘red porcelain’ proclaims its status even more loudly with its ring of semi-precious stones. It is an absurd object. It is not beautiful. It is a mass of different competing styles and surfaces: it tries far too hard. But it is trying to make a small and special object out of a new material and it needs honour.
Edmund de Waal FRSA (b. 1964)
Born in Nottingham in 1964, Edmund de Waal started to pot when he was five. Close to clay throughout his school years, he was taught by Geoffrey Whiting when a scholar at King’s School in Canterbury. A disciple of the ‘Anglo-Oriental’ potter Bernard Leach, Whiting introduced de Waal to English ceramics as well as to ceramics from China, Korea and Japan. Leaving school, de Waal knew that he wanted to be a potter. He continued to train with Whiting, read English at Trinity Hall in Cambridge and then set up his own studio, first on the Welsh border and then in Sheffield. Having completed a postgraduate diploma in Japanese language at the University of Sheffield, de Waal spent one year at the Mejiro Ceramics Studio in Tokyo. Following his return from Japan, he set up a studio in London in 1993 and gradually focused his work from functional wares executed in clay to installations worked in porcelain. As much influenced by Sung dynasty wares as by the Bauhaus movement, de Waal is also a prolific writer and has been Professor of Ceramics at the University of Westminster since 2004.
A Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts since 1996, de Waal’s work has been the subject of numerous group and solo exhibitions in Britain and abroad and can be seen in public collections in Cambridge, Edinburgh, London and Oxford, as well as in New York and Tokyo. He also acts as an advisor to museums and regularly curates exhibitions. Considered one of the finest potters of his generation, de Waal was awarded the silver medal at the World Ceramics Exposition in Korea in 2003.
Edmund de Waal lives with his family in London.
E. de Waal, Bernard Leach, Tate Publishing, 1998 (2nd edn. 2003)
E. de Waal, Design Sourcebook: Ceramics, New Holland Publishers, 1999
E. de Waal, Twentieth Century Ceramics, Thames & Hudson, 2003