wed 24/07/2019

Edmund de Waal, Waddesdon Manor | reviews, news & interviews

Edmund de Waal, Waddesdon Manor

Edmund de Waal, Waddesdon Manor

These dozen installations in a stately home are witty and beautiful, elegant and affecting

‘The fascination of what's difficult’ on display at Waddesdon Manor© Edmund de Waal Photo: Paul Barker

From Caro at Chatsworth and now de Waal at Waddesdon, the grandest of the stately homes are invigorating their historic collections with seasonings of the contemporary. Like Chatsworth, Waddesdon also has a growing permanent collection of contemporary sculpture housed in its famous gardens, from Michael Craig-Martin to Richard Long, as well as a small group of Lucian Freud indoors, including a portrait of the current Lord Rothschild.

The impulse is understandable: to enliven, enhance and underline the historically frozen displays. If the intellectual aesthetic framework complements and extends what is already almost overwhelmingly on view, the result can be subtly spectacular. And so it is with the de Waals, at times indeed so subtle that some pieces were quite ignored by visitors, while others did a satisfying double take.

The environment in which the de Waals are so quietly embedded underlines the astringency, the understated austerity of the porcelains

Edmund de Waal’s bestselling family memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, traces the extraordinary history of his Ephrussi ancestors from Odessa grain merchants to Charles Ephrussi of Paris (a character in Proust, and a great art collector), the Viennese Ephrussis and the Nazis. The Ephrussis were merchants and traders, a great pan-European family whose peers were the Rothschilds, who presciently departed German speaking Europe before the turmoil of the 20th-century. One branch of the family indulged “le gout Rothschild” with a scattering of enormous 19th-century mansions in Buckinghamshire (the Vale of Aylesbury has been nicknamed Rothschildshire) of which Waddesdon and its collections is the most beautifully preserved. In view of shared intersections a century ago, de Waal’s installations are curiously piquant.

At Waddesdon, everywhere is glitter, bling and glitz, amplified by gilt and mirror. The most subdued parts of the collection are the Dutch and British paintings, but they are so numerous and profuse as to dazzle, too. So over the top is the ensemble that even the ceilings are patterned, carved and gilded in this 19th-century pastiche French chateau.

This context is crucial for understanding just how witty and beautiful, so elegant and affecting, the dozen de Waal installations are. Understated meditations on grouping, collecting, keeping, dispersing, they're like a dash of lemon cutting through the sugar, heightening the complex flavours of the whole.

Every surface – granite, marble, polished wood – is covered with something else at Waddesdon. De Waal set one rule: nothing could be moved. Yet he has managed to insert both free-standing vitrines - taller than people - and smaller ones, floating on transparent Perspex bases, on tables, desks and in fireplaces. Each one holds scores of thrown porcelain vessels, cylinders, jars, bowls, dishes and plates. It is a profusion of minimalism.

He even manages to provoke, to almost mock: in the Breakfast Room two black framed vitrines float on their Perspex bases, each containing a crowd of cylindrical white porcelain vessels. Entitled between two breaths, each group is a mirror image of the other. The piece is situated opposite two of the largest porcelain sculptures ever made, a nanny goat and peacock, by the Meissen factory for Augustus the Strong in the 1720s. These bravura pieces look deeply improbable and rather camp, while de Waal’s are curiously affecting, even moving.

In the Dining Room, all and more (pictured right) is another black framed vitrine, floating on its Perspex base, containing a heap of 23 irregularly shaped circular plates. Each is finished in different white glazes (de Waal’s next book will be about the colour white), with one completely gold plate in the stack, as though all the gilt in the room had coalesced on one dish. The untidiness of the stack is deliberate - the hint of wobble suggests uncertainty in the context of the ordered magnificence of the Dining Room.

The basis of Waddesdon seems to be if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Throughout the house there are staggeringly tidy arrangements of Sevres, Meissen, Boulle French furniture, sparkling glass chandeliers, tapestries, Gainsboroughs, Reynolds, Dutch 17th-century paintings: all made for English and French royalty (Louis XIV, XV,XVI, Marie Antoinette), aristocracy and the great mercantile families of Holland. In the middle, the de Waals are like still points of calm, reflection and pause.
 

The Waddesdon environment in which the de Waals are so quietly embedded underlines the astringency, the understated austerity of the porcelains. By the nature of the hand thrown and the variations in individual glazes, no plate, dish or vessel is exactly replicated, and nothing is perfect or the last word. The exquisite nature of each unadorned vessel, the forms undecorated and unelaborated, echo the earliest utilitarian containers made in clay eons ago. The paradox is that porcelain is a highly refined material, the secrets of which were deciphered in the west only a couple of centuries ago. These are collections of the humblest objects, made in the grandest ceramic, with the whole greater than the parts. 

On the West Gallery mantelpiece, six black lacquer boxes lined with lead, the fascination of what’s difficult, all together contain in groups of two and three 16 porcelain vessels in celadon, white and a dash of gold glinting on some of the rims (pictured left). They embrace, three to a side, a demurely extravagant French clock, gilded, carved, cast, with flurries of naked putti cascading down the clock face, surmounted by a bronze nude holding out a golden garland.

The most dramatic of the installations are the two vast vitrines, something else, somewhere other, in the Tower Room. Each house 42 vessels and bowls on seven glass shelves in a spacious parade. They are surrounded but not engulfed by French paintings, Sevres porcelain, and French furniture made for the doomed Marie Antoinette, all set against red damask walls and 18th-century royal oak panelling. The vitrines are silent presences in the crescendo of vivid colour and intricate elaborate furniture. Amidst the sumptuous overkill of Waddesdon, we are brought down to earth in the most ethereal manner.
 

 

These understated meditations are like a dash of lemon cutting through the sugar

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