Edmund de Waal interview (part I)

As promised, here’s the first notes from the Radio 3 interview of Edmund de Waal (EdW) by John Tusa (JT) at the weekend. It was a fascinating discussion and I want to get the key comments recorded here.

On the experiences that influenced him during childhood:

EdW: There was the interest of living next to cathedrals, it was a clerical family and so we lived next to some very, very good Gothic cathedrals and I think some of my early experiences of wandering through buildings and feeling different kinds of spaces were very, very important. I do remember being startled by how beautiful and interesting and odd a lot of the spaces in those cathedrals were. Those are some of my very earliest memories, so perhaps that something that fed into my feeling for objects.

JT: The spaces rather than the shapes?

EdW: Absolutely. The way in which you move, for instance in Canterbury cathedral … from very high spaces into the crypt, you descend into spaces or get trapped in spaces and then come out again into completely different volumes and that sense of how spaces can change atmosphere and spaces can change your emotions seemed to me something that was very interesting. I suppose that is something that does connect to pots quite directly.

On the subject of his early teacher and repetition:

JT: Why did he think that making 250 honey pots taught you anything?

EdW: Because there’s a very basic level of skill that is only acquired through repetition. It’s one of those truisms that’s very difficult to get round in ceramics because people make it into a moral law, but it seems self evident to me that the more objects you make of the same size, the same shape, the more attuned you get to slight differences. Your eye and your hand become more carefully attuned to difference.

On using porcelain; it’s unpredictable nature and the cultural baggage that can be embodied in a material:

JT: Give me a thumbnail difference of what working in porcelain is and what working in earthenware or stoneware is.

EdW: It’s a very plastic material, but it’s a very treacherous material, you have to work very quickly and decisively. It’s a very seductive material as well, very smooth and very beautiful; but the interesting thing is, when you fire it you can’t completely control the results. When you fire it to the temparatures I’m firing my porcelain to, it bends and warps and moves around. So you can’t make a perfect porcelain pot, or I can’t make a perfect porcelain pot. So what you’re dealing with is a material which is susceptible to gesture, how you handle it, to your movements around it …

Porcelain, for me, had all those somatic bodily experiences of being able to move the clay around in a new way. But also, porcelain is part of the great matrix of how culture has happened; it’s the silk road, it’s how pots have moved from the East to the West, it’s full of lots of different historical references.

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