This was a book I never got round to reading last year, but I have now and am glad I did. It’s a quiet book, beautifully written by a man who is, apparently, one of the world’s leading ceramic artists. He must apply the same care to his writing that he does to his ceramics, as this story – about his own family – is gently and sensitively told.
Edmund de Waal inherits a collection of netsuke from his great-uncle Iggie – 246 Japanese wood and ivory carvings – and this sparks an interest in him to find out their history and how they came to be in his family. Netsuke are small carvings, from 2cm to about 10cm high, which were popular in Japan from the late 17th century to the 19th century. They were often used as toggles on kimonos or wallets. As it says in the blurb on the back of the book, de Waal’s journey to find out the history of these netsuke is part ‘treasure hunt’, as he traces his family back nearly two centuries to find out when and where they were first bought. He goes to each city where the family members have lived, including Japan to his great-uncle Iggie who is still alive when de Waal starts his research and where he encounters the netsuke for the first time.
What results is the most fascinating insight into an extremely wealthy family – the Ephrussi family – who owned an empire of business interests ranging from Prague to Vienna to Paris. In 1860 the family was the greatest grain-exporter in the world; ‘Jews with their own coat of arms’, as de Waal describes. The Rothchilds were known as the ‘Kings of the Jews’, the Ephrussis as the ‘Kings of Grain.’ Charles Ephrussi, the youngest son, goes to Paris. “He is free to do what he wants,” de Waal tells us.
What a wonderful life : Charles starts collecting – paintings, furniture, art – and becomes noticed in the salons. ‘Japonisme’ becomes the rage in society; the collection of Japanese objets. With his mistress, Charles buys beautiful black and gold lacquer boxes; he buys Japanese prints, and he also buys a collection of 246 netsuke which he puts in a black vitrine.
Charles becomes influential as an art collector after a time, and works as the editor of a respected arts journal. He starts collecting paintings by the Impressionists: Monet, Manet, Pisarro, Sisley, and becomes friends with them. I had forgotten how radical these painters were seen at first, ‘assailed in the press and by the Academy as charlatans’.
When Charles’ first cousin gets married , he sends the couple the netsuke in their vitrine box as a wedding present, and thus the collection goes to Vienna in 1899, to Viktor and Emma. As early as that time, de Waal finds out how rife anti-Semitism was. The mayor was noted as saying ‘…Jew-baiting is an excellent means of propaganda and getting ahead in politics.’ A great deal of the book focuses on this family and, with this investigation, de Waal learns more about his past than he had ever realised, especially the realities of being Jewish in Europe over the decades.
Viktor and Emma lived in a mansion (in fact, more than a mansion; a palace, the Palais Ephrussi) in Vienna. The netsuke were kept in Emma’s dressing-room and de Waal writes enchantingly about how her children would come in there and play with them while she was dressing for dinner. One of the children was Iggie, the uncle who passes them onto de Waal. During the war, ‘the household and the family make their sacrifices’ – only a few members were staff are kept on, but ‘Emma still dresses up every evening, because it is important not to let standards slip’.
And then, so soon after that war, a second world war started and this one had a direct effect on the Jewish Ephrussi family. Palais Ephrussi was decreed to become fully ‘Aryanised’. The family had to move out, and all objects of art had to go to the Property Transactions Office to be valued – many were sold on or auctioned off to raise money for the Reich. The ten very best pictures were photographed and the photos sent to Berlin for Hitler to look at to see if he wanted any. Anna, Emma’s long-time maid, was responsible for packing up the house, and in an act of love for the family, she carefully hid a few netsuke a day in her clothing and put them under the mattress of her bed. ‘Now you are back,’ she said to Elizabeth, Emma’s daughter, when they reunite in 1945, ‘I have something to return to you.’
Elizabeth took them back to England with her, where she was now living, safely stored in a little attaché case. When Iggie, her brother, came to visit her, she opened the netsuke case and showed them to him. ‘A melee of rats. The fox with inlaid eyes. The monkey wrapped around the ground. His brindled wolf.’ They took them out and looked at them, remembering playing with them when they were young in their mother’s dressing room.
‘It’s Japan,’ Iggie said. “I’ll take them back.”
Iggie headed off to Japan, and fell in love: with the country and with a younger man, Jiro. He never left Japan again. He designed a new glass case for the netsuke, and they were put on show again in his house to again be admired. In the 1970s Iggie pasted little numbers onto the bottom of each one and had them assessed. They were more valuable than expected. When de Waal inherited them after his death, he brought them back to England, to London. He bought an old vitrine from the Victoria and Albert Museum – seven feet high and made of bronze. “It is next to the piano, and unlocked so the children can open the door if they wish to. The netsuke begin again.”
I have written the facts of the memoir in a very brief way, doing it no justice at all. The writing within the story, for example, is one of the reasons I found this book so fascinating. de Waal questions his right to be investigating his family as he does, digging into their privacy; he has faces his Jewishness; he falls in love (metaphorically) with members of his family, and he explores the streets they lived on and the houses they lived in. He writes in the past tense mostly, but often switches to the present tense to bring the reader right into a scene and be immersed in what was happening.
He takes two years of work to explore and research, all the while holding a netsuke in his pocket as a reminder of the origin of the journey on which he has embarked.
- Seeing is believing the beauty of the netsukes (telegraph.co.uk)
- Op-Ed Columnist: The Netsuke Survived (nytimes.com)
- Edmund de Waal: a passion for pots (guardian.co.uk)