What a story this hare could have told should he have possessed the gift of speech. Instead we see him hunched there, ears pinned back, quivering, stunned by the journey he has taken, the events that have occurred around him, surprised to have survived when so many of his companion artifacts, the more sturdy furnishings, grand paintings and even other ceramics, did not.
The Hare With Amber Eyes is a Japanese netsuke, a miniature sculpture (though they can be wood or ivory) invented in the 17th century, not just as an objet d’art, but a functional kind of toggle to attach to the end of a cord for a pouch that a man might carry, since most of the garments they wore did not contain pockets (the two Japanese characters ne+tsuke mean “root” and “to attach”).
The hare is part of a collection of 264 netsuke purchased by the third son of an aspiring and ambitious Jewish family, Charles Ephrussi (son of Leon).
By 1860 the family had become the greatest grain-exporters in the world. In 1857 the two elder sons were sent out from Odessa to Vienna, the capital city of the sprawling Hapsburg Empire. They bought a huge house in the city centre, and for ten years this was the home to a shifting population of grandparents, children and grandchildren as the family moved backwards and forwards between the two cities. One of the sons, my great-great grandfather Ignace, was tasked with handling Ephrussi business in the Austro-Hungarian Empire from this Vienna base. Paris came next: Leon, the older son, was tasked with establishing the family and business there.
Being the third son, Charles was spared the obligation of being groomed for the financial sector in the family business (though it may well be he was not cut out for it either as de Waal speculates), preferring to frequent the cafes, salons and a certain boudoir of an older, married woman, attaching himself only ever temporarily to that which he admired – having already lived in three large cities, with his languages, wealth and a passionate interest in the arts, he had plenty of time to indulge his many passions.
It was through his pursuits in the arts, the start of his own collection, mingling with artists, other collectors and art dealers, writers about the arts, that he became interested in Japonisme, a rarity when it began appearing and so desirous. He would purchase a large collection of netsuke from the Parisian art dealer Philippe Sichel who travelled to Japan in 1874.
There is a wonderful connection to Proust throughout this part of the book, one that was a pleasure to discover, without the necessity of having read him, if anything it is an interesting introduction to that group of intellectuals of the 1880’s – 1900’s, Charles Ephrussi himself one of the models for Proust’s depiction of Swann in Swann’s Way.
The author of the book, Edmund de Waal is a descendant of the Ephrussi family and has inherited the 264 netsuke. He is a ceramic potter himself and spent two years studying in Japan, after many years as an apprentice in England. It was in Tokyo, while visiting his Uncle Iggie (another Ignace) that he first laid eyes and hands on the family netsuke that would eventually become his, learning a little of their journey from Paris to Vienna, London and back to Tokyo. Eventually he would spend five years researching what would become this incredible book.
He too, is the third son, though his is no longer a global banking family with the same expectations of its protege. Although he shares similar characteristics to his ancestors, those who did manage to escape the family business and were able to develop that appreciation and eye for a work of art, going beyond casual observation; it is as if he converses with these objects and reads them as if they have living, human qualities.
Through this book, he traces the history of these netsuke and his family, as they rise in ascendancy and are undone by the events leading up to the second world war. We come to know many of the family members and Edmund’s grandmother Elizabeth, a poet and a lawyer is a wonderful woman to learn about, the first woman to receive a doctorate from the University of Vienna and passionate about her poetry, she corresponds regularly with Rilke.
This book was so fascinating and so sensitively handled, it was with an almost palpable sadness that I finished it and felt bereft, wondering where on earth I could go to from here, reading-wise, after such a story.
And then I remembered it has been two years since publication and so I consoled myself with following the work of De Waal, who has been rather prolific since 2010 and I was not surprised to see his recent exhibition A Thousand Hours, showing works behind vitrines, evidence of the longer term effect of his immersion into all that research and study of netsuke and other artifacts his family had preserved.
I leave a link to him commenting on that most recent exhibition and a wonderful article in the Telegraph, in which I learn that De Waal has recently returned from a trip to Jingdezhen, home of the purest clay in China, where porcelain has been made for 1,000 years. This was a research trip for his next book and for a collaboration with the Chinese porcelain collections at the Fitzwilliams Museum for an upcoming exhibition:
De Waal is animated, inspired, gesticulating with his long fingered hands; there is a hum of creativity around him. You can almost see the words fizzing in his head, feel the ideas taking root, springing up out of nothing and arranging themselves in little groups, to form stories, dramas, like his pots.
The Netsuke – photos of some of the Ephrussi collection + family pictures
Article – Edmund de Waal on his new exhibition, A Thousand Hours by Jessamy Calkin
Video – Watch Edmund De Waal transform clay into beautiful works of art