Author: Edmund de Waal, 2010.
Genre: Non Fiction. History. Art History. Biography.
Other Details: Paperback. 354 pages/Hardback. Illustrated Edition 432 pages.
Edmund de Waal, one of Britain's leading ceramic artists, had been fascinated with his Great Uncle Iggie's collection of 264 netsuke when he first encountered it in 1991 while in Japan on a scholarship. Edmund eventually inherited the collection and decided to look into its story. This took him on a journey of discovery about his maternal family, the Ephrussis, who were originally from Odessa and became a wealthy banking dynasty.
The first owner of the collection was Charles Ephrussi, who had settled in Paris in the 1870s. Charles was an art critic and avid collector during this very exciting period in art history. Marcel Proust served as his secretary for a while and he later used Charles as one of his inspirations for the character of Charles Swann in his epic In Search of Lost Time. Charles had bought the entire netsuke collection during the Parisian craze for Japanese art and culture in the 1880s. In 1899 Charles sent the collection to Vienna as a wedding gift for his banker cousin, Viktor Ephrussi. The collection later came into possession of Ignace (Iggie), who had played with the netsuke as a child. He settled in Japan following the WWII.
I will admit that like many people in our reading group I had expected the book to focus more on the netsuke; rather they provided the link between these different places and times to explore the story of the Ephrussi family and the wider historical context of Europe and Japan during this 100 year period. Edmund de Waal is very stoic when encountering the evidence of anti-Semitism, though at one point he breaks down while looking through the Jewish archives in Vienna.
At the reading group where it was discussed we all felt that more illustrations would have been welcomed. It was a book I had wanted to own and was pleased that I'd held back as I discovered that a hardback illustrated edition had recently been published. Having it with me now, it really is a very beautiful edition and well worth the extra expense.
Edmund de Waal's website - his own ceramic work as well as a gallery for the netsuke collection, readers guide and other items.