Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Edmund de Waal at Waddesdon

On Monday we went to Waddesdon Manor (owned by the National Trust) to see the exhibition of Edmund de Waal's work which had been installed in the house's state room. De Waal had created a series of specially created installations in response to the house and its contents. The house, which was built in the 1870's by Ferdinand Rothschild, contains an extremely fine porcelain collection, being particularly strong in Sevres. We have seen de Waal's installations at the V&A and at Chatsworth, but our main experience of de Waal's work has been seeing it in his studio. The interiors of Waddesdon are particularly rich and busy, so we were curious as to how work and location would respond to each other.


August Bank Holiday Monday was perhaps not the most sensible day to go, but a timed ticket scheme was in operation so that though the house was busy it was not oppressively so. A further drawback, from our point of view, was that for August children were going free so that with the indifferent weather, the house was full of families. This meant that it was difficult to see the works at times. Difficult to see them, in fact, in various ways. The press of people made it tricky, but also the fact that some of de Waal's vitrines are in rooms which have extremely busy interiors, particularly the dining room. It was hard to pause and concentrate when surrounded by so many people, and so much richly elaborated stuff.

In the breakfast room there aretwo of the large Meissen animal figures made for Augustus the Strong of Dresden in the 18th century. Their sheer size and scale is astonishing. De Waal's response was a pair of vitrines on the opposite console tables, containing dense assemblages of his own white and cream glazed porcelain pottery. A rather low key, but very definite response, not a challenge but an understated and firm comment.

In the following ante-room and dotted around the house were five small opaque cases each with a single porcelain vessel seen in ghostly outline. The five are deliberately dispersed and contain an element of reference to the founding of the Rothschild dynasty with the five arrows, the five sons sent to found the family fortunes in different countries.

In the dining room, one de Waal's vitrines contained an untidy pile of porcelain, in a sort of response to the beautiful tidiness of the room. But another one had opaque glass so that the piles of porcelain were again a ghost. Here and in the breakfast room the vitrines were on clear perspex plinths so that they seemed to float just above the console tables, a magical effect.

In the red drawing room was one of the most successful installations, albeit one only seen from a distance. 8 small black lacquer lead-lined boxes were stacked inside a large one and the large one placed in the fire-place. 48 thrown porcelain vessels, jars and dishes in celadon and white glazes were placed in the 8 boxes. De Waal has been using lead lined boxes recently and the effect of the pale glazed porcelain on the lead is quite something. Here the whole seemed to fit into the fire-place as if it was part of it. One of the inspirations for this work is de Waal's seeing the stacks of wooden boxes made to transport porcelain. The eight boxes each form a separate, intimate installation but the whole adding up to something much more.

In the grey drawing room, three vitrines were placed around the room, each containing pots with black glazes and wonderfully detailed gilding. One vitrine was close to the visitor route, so you could see the stunning detail of the pottery, but others were more distant as if to remain tantalizingly out of reach.

De Waal work for the west gallery had boxes (black lacquer lead lined again) each with a pairing of porcelain vessels (in white and celadon glazes with gilding), the pairing echoing the way the historic porcelain comes in sets, in garnitures.

In the tower drawing room a pair of vitrines of elegant posts, all white and celadon. De Waal's description of this talks about lost collections and spaces where objects once were. We call to mind the Rothschild collections which have disappeared and those of other banking families (like De Waal's own).

For the huge lacquered desk in the morning room, there were a series of seven black lacquer trays inset with glass, each containing a few small black porcelain dishes. Some of the trays were lying out on the open desk top, allowing us to see them in their lovely detail, the shiny black porcelain responding to the light from the room around. But other boxes were in compartments in the desk, visible only slightly, again tantalizing the viewer.

This was a wonderful exhibition, which thoughtfully responded to the house and its contents and made you pause and contemplate rather than simply rushing.

The exhibition is open until 28 October, further information from the Waddesdon Manor website.

There are some fascinating videos of Edmund de Waal talking about the exhibition here, including some stunning footage of the installations themselve.s

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