2011-12-01 / Opinions

The Hare with Amber Eyes


Edmund de Waal is a distinguished potter who is a Professor of Ceramics at the University of Westminster. In The Hare with Amber Eyes, he looks back at his family’s history. It is no ordinary family. The Ephrussis were a major force in European grain, shipping, and banking in the 19th and 20th centuries.

He begins by telling of his studies in porcelain and Japanese in Tokyo in 1991. He spent time with his great uncle there and met his collection of netsuke, small carved ivory or wood figures. While they looked at and handled the tiny pieces, his Uncle Iggie would reminisce about his childhood and family. Edmund inherited the collection when his uncle died, and he decided to investigate the family’s story through the journey of the netsuke. The “hare with amber eyes” was a favorite, thus the title.

There is a family tree helpfully given in the beginning that enables the reader to keep track of his relatives. De Waal takes time off from his artistic work to pursue his idea. He goes first to Paris where Iggie’s brother Charles had lived. The home is now an office building, but it is “utterly beautiful.” Edmund, the artist, frequently calls our attention to the beauty of architecture, sculpture, painting, as well as the netsuke. It is one of the charms of this book.

Charles was the first collector of the netsuke. “The Hotel Ephrussi was a family house, but it was also the Parisian headquarters of a family in its ascendancy.” It was built, like its counterpart in Vienna, in 1871, in a fashionable area, part of a family plan. The founder, Charles Jackson Ephrussi, had planned expansion from Odessa in the 1850s. This was a Jewish family moving toward great wealth and respectability.

Research takes de Waal to Vienna and through time from 1871 to 1899 to 1938, and inevitably to Hitler and the loss of everything for the Ephrussi family. Charles, the great uncle, was an art expert in Paris in the late 1800s. He acquired a wide, very valuable collection of paintings and sculpture, as well as the netsuke. He presented the netsuke to his cousin, Viktor, the second son (and Edmund’s great-grandfather) had to enter the banking business when the oldest son chose another life.

Edmund’s grandmother Elizabeth remembered happy times in the mansion, often playing with the netsuke, though she sought education and was fortunately elsewhere when the brownshirts came. Though familiar to us now, what happened to Viktor and his wife Emily when the Nazis took power to Vienna, is deeply troubling.

Though some family members found their way out of Germany and Austria in time, Viktor chose to stay. Jews were targeted, as we know, and the family’s wealth made them particularly inviting targets. The children had made their escapes, but the home was invaded, and Viktor was forced to sign away the home, property, and business.

Emily committed suicide, and Elizabeth managed to get Viktor to England. The story of how the netsuke were saved from the enemy is a lovely note in a dreadful narrative. Although the netsuke are described in vivid detail, the reader aches to see them. De Waal emphasizes that the touch of the little figures is as important as their beauty; perhaps that is the reason that there are no pictures of them.

The Hare with Amber Eyes is an enthralling book. It is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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