An Evening with Edmund de Waal

“Bright earth, Fired earth”: Travels with Porcelain. Perhaps not a riveting title for a talk unless you’re a ceramics enthusiast, but for me it represented a chance to hear from a writer who I feel a creative kinship with.

I finished reading The Hare with Amber Eyes last month; a rare book and an even rarer moment in this aspiring author’s life when I can honestly say ‘this book is exceptional; I want to write like Edmund de Waal’.

Now I find myself mere metres from the man himself in the auditorium of the Yorkshire Museum for a talk organised by the Centre of Ceramic Art and the University of York. Every seat is taken, the air is buzzing with anticipation, and a tall, unassuming gentleman takes to the stage. Edmund de Waal begins his story of porcelain.

De Waal has been working with clay since he was five, and has spent over five decades nursing an obsession with the art form largely focused on a love of purest white ceramics. Porcelain – beloved of the rich and influential; revered by academics, collectors and crafters; a status symbol culturally, economically and symbolically. For something so pure, the colourful story that de Waal unfolds is unexpectedly dark.

For those who have read The White Road, you’ll be familiar with the story explored this evening. However, to hear it from de Waal’s own lips is something quite special – just as he is a master of moulding clay, he’s also expert at crafting words into mesmerising tales. We travel to China, Germany, Cornwall, Vienna and Stockholm, meeting the men obsessed with porcelain and discovering the darker side of their passion.

As with The Hare with Amber Eyes, moments of memory and emotion reveal themselves in de Waal’s storytelling this evening, audible gasps coming from the audience of delight, surprise and disgust as we sympathise with his discoveries. It is never just about the pots; it is always about the stories they reveal and hide.

To finish the evening, de Waal proudly introduces us to his latest exhibition at Artipelag in Stockholm; a series of ceramic installations alongside paintings by Giorgio Morandi that have inspired him. In a beautiful contemporary gallery space surrounded by vistas of nature, de Waal’s installations comprise of pots poetically positioned in vitrines. They look powerful and fragile, exposed yet still contained, simplistic in form but infinitely complex in context. They are everything porcelain and its history represents.

It is a fitting tribute to the ceramic medium, to de Waal’s journey of discovery, and to a potter’s obsession. It is also a warning against and an invitation to a life of adoration. For me, and I imagine for many others listening this evening, it’s clear which path we want to follow. “Bright earth, Fired earth”; de Waal has ignited our imaginations.

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