Sunday, October 16, 2011

Potter's heritage

Friends and family members know that I've been an adept, for ages, of genealogy. This fascination blends in with my passion for genetics. Recent Skyvington and Walker ancestors were humble folk, nothing to do with our fabulous Skywalker namesake.

Over the last week or so, I've been fascinated by a genealogical book with a strange title: The Hare with Amber Eyes. And in this family history, unlike my own, all the ancestors are extraordinary individuals.

It's the family history of a young English potter, Edmund de Waal.

He's a descendant of the famous Ephrussi family: Russo-Austrian Jews who made their fortune on the international wheat market. The central personage of Edmund's book is Charles Ephrussi [1849-1905], who spent his life in Paris. I've assembled the following fragment of a family tree showing the relationship between the potter/author and his celebrated ancestral relative:

Using the family's immense wealth, Charles Ephrussi collected works of art, and became a benefactor of French painters. At that epoch, boater-hatted oarsmen and associated revelers would gather together on the banks of the Seine and the Marne to eat, drink, dance and talk about business of all kinds. The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir [1841-1919] evokes this lifestyle.

Charles Ephrussi appears in the background, wearing a ridiculous black top hat: surely some kind of humoristic and symbolic artistic license on the part of the painter.

And where does the lovely hare with amber eyes enter this story?

It's a specimen of a 19th-century Japanese form of sculpture called netsuke. In the beginning, these tiny pieces of sculpture were designed to be used like sliding beads, to fasten the ends of cords around robes such as kimonos. But they soon became precious and priceless collectors' items. And the ivory hare belonged to Charles Ephrussi's collection of a few hundred netsuke items, finally inherited by the English potter, author of this family-history book.

This delightful book, sent to me by my ex-wife as a birthday gift, has been written by an English potter, disciple of the great Bernard Leach [1887-1979]. Behind Christine's invitation to read the marvelous book by Edmund de Waal, I sensed constantly, in a vague way, the spirit of two exceptional individuals who were present in the lives of Christine and me: the potter Maurice Crignon and the editor/benefactor Albert Richard. At times, curiously, knowing full well that there were no wealthy Ephrussi people among my humble Skywalker ancestors, I had the impression that I had received nevertheless, in a way, the same kind of human heritage as Edmund de Waal.

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