Research point: Edmund de Waal – In Black and White

For the very point of this new course I have been asked to read an article published in the Crafts Magazine in 2015 on Edmund de Waal.  I confess to not having heard of this craftsman and did not know what he did but the article soon revealed himself to be a writer and ceramicist or as he prefers to call himself a potter.

First impressions about Edmund de Waal are of someone who is passionate and always interested in his craft and subject but additional reading suggests someone who is easily distracted by perhaps another piece of porcelain in a museum or another idea and will go ‘off tangent’ during interviews as something grabs his attention that he wishes to point out or talk about but always still with his eye on the subject.

My further impressions of the interview in the magazine are that this artist feels very much that his chosen craft is an art and belongs in the visual art world and despite his high status in his field he is a man who is still very much a part of it. It is interesting he refers to the craft ‘lagoon’ as it is called by Grayson Perry and this is something I  had to research in order to clarify why his response was so emphatic.

The simple explanation according to Grayson Perry (2005) is that the lagoon is somewhere the crafts reside and the artists have failed due to ambition or imagination because they are too scared to go into the wider ocean of the art world and to afraid to accept the language and culture of that ocean which is just next door. Grayson Perry is also of the opinion that craft concentrates on technique but art has its emphasis on emotions or feelings and also crucially ideas. There was the suggestion in the interview that Mr de Waal is now slightly outside of the lagoon and his emphatic response was in essence that he was still just a potter and that he didn’t believe in this so called ‘lagoon’ but rather that he is prepared to ‘champion’ his experiences as he states in the interview and also the craft community or culture in a world and culture that ‘wants to make everything glossy’ – he believes in a culture where craft is about making a mess or going to school or art college and apprenticeships and about the simple task of making things.  The opinions of both men are very different and I am intrigued by the interview with Grayson Perry in comparison to this interview with Mr de Waal so shall respond to the former in a separate blog.

Edmund de Waal speaks of craft being an inherent part of our culture or any other culture – it is part of our history irregardless of gender or identity and so needs to be celebrated and I feel this is desperately important in our modern commercial society. As I write I have completed the art history course of Level 1 and have studied the arts of the past and feel that the lessons of the past are the lessons for the future in artistic studies and also as part of our artistic culture whether it is textiles, sculpture, ceramics, photography or paintings or any of the visual arts – the form of art or craft is irrelevant but what matters is the history and the culture to which it belongs.  Culture in all its forms is part of social identity and this includes the aforesaid visual arts and this seems to be very much the view of Mr de Waal – the country or ethnicity is irrelevant but what matters is the craft that forms part of that culture.

This interview was in relation to a new book The White Road which Mr de Waal had written with the book being the successor of his first successful book titled The Hare with Amber Eyes.  This new book traced the history of porcelain which it seems is this artists favourite medium and he states it was very much a journey as despite working extensively with the clay he knew very little about its history.  The success of his first book he didn’t feel put excessive pressure on himself because this was a personal journey and his attitude appears to be ‘it was just happening to him’ at that particular time – he comes across as a man who does not care if he is liked or not and someone who never allows himself to feel comfortable as the article states but he is someone who comes across as incredibly intellectual and always searching and questioning and this forms the basis for his writing and his pottery.

It appears the first book was very well researched but one that comes across as very personal and Mr de Waal has aimed for the same effect – the writer, Grant Gibson, speaks of how the book includes snippets of the potter’s own relationship with the white clay or parts of his own biography alongside the history of this incredibly material.  The porcelain is described as ‘white gold’ throughout the article due to its purity and beauty.

As I read through the article again I am struck by the paragraph which describes how the potter thinks about broken articles or spaces between different things and about installations – he speaks “of making with more space between objects” (de Waal, 2015) which I find intriguing and my impression is of the negative space between objects being just as important as the object itself.  I am fascinated by the Japanese concept of broken objects being repaired with gold to enhance their beauty and this is man who is considering the shards of broken things as he considers how to make his installations and finds the structures to do so.

The article goes on to mention the collaboration between himself and the Aurora Orchestra as he attempts to create different installations to illustrate his book – the idea of music speaking of the white (porcelain) and its place in the world or what it does to the world is fascinating as he attempts to cross the boundaries of two different visual art forms.  Mr de Waal likens the art of making to the art of music – both are performances and both have “pulses and rhythms and repetitions and gaps” as he states in regards to his installations and each having their own musical scores.

I find the comparison between music and visual arts fascinating and also understandable – as I think to the great artistic works each has its own rhythm and each flows and ebbs in different areas with some being calm or quiet and some being more dramatic and each with their own scores written by the artist themselves so understand the concept of the collaboration that Mr de Waal has created.

Mr de Waal also apparently has another collaboration with the artist David Ward which is centred on the work made for an exhibition that originally took place in Orkney.  The works concentrated on the landscapes and the light and a sense of place is becoming a key part of the work and also of the The White Road – landscapes and places are becoming part of new projects as is stated as the artist seeks to understand their history and this goes back to the culture of the land.

There is clear evidence of how much culture, history and the landscape are influencing the work of this artist – all have a direct relation to the other and all bring different ideas to his work.

Finally the most compelling part of the interview is how the artist describes the fact that he now finds porcelain or ‘white’ to be much darker now than before he did the research for his book due to his destructive and complex history – it seems it is not as pure as it seems visually despite the demands.

This is an article that I read intensely the first time and as I have gone through it again I find the artist ever more fascinating as clearly he is a vastly intelligent man and one who seeks or researches in order to create or make whether it is a simple piece of pottery or a more complex installation.

As  a little background information Edmund de Waal was born in 1964 and his installations comprise of large scale porcelain vessels which, according to his biography on his website, are influenced by space, sound and also architecture, all of which he is passionate about.  Mr de Waal has exhibited both nationally and internationally and was awarded an OBE for services to art in 2011 – he has also been awarded no less than 5 honorary doctorates and an Honorary Fellowship of Trinity Hall, Cambridge.  In addition Mr de Waal is a Senior Fellow of Royal College Art, is on the Advisory Committee for Royal Mint and also a Trustee for The Saturday Trust Club and the Victoria and Albert Museum such is the high regard in which he is held.  Asides from the two books mentioned Mr de Waal also has 3 other publications to his name including a critical study on Bernard Leach in 1997 which the article in the Crafts Magazine mentioned due to it being apparently somewhat controversial as he reassessed the famous potter’s work.  The publications meant that Mr de Waal was awarded in 2015 the Windham-Campbell Prize for non-fiction.

I understand why the course material asks a student to study this article as a starting point to this first section of the course in order to introduce different ways of creative thinking and making and it is also interesting to think about what identity means.


OCA. 2017.  Edmund de Waal In Black and White [online]. [Date Accessed:  4 February 2017].  Available from:

Telegraph Media Group Limited. 2017. Edmund de Waal, potter, writer, alchemist [online].  [Date Accessed: 4 February 2017].  Available from:

de Waal, E. (date unknown).  Edmund de Waal [online]. [Date Accessed:  4 February 2017].  Available from:

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