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North Land, A New CoCA Aquisition – by Fiona Green, Collections Facilitator

Fiona Green, Collections Facilitator for Art, talks about the new acquisition for the Centre of Ceramic Art.

Edmund De Waal was born in 1964 in Nottingham, the son of Esther Aline (née Lowndes-Moir) and Rev. Dr Victor de Waal, who became the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral. His interest in pottery began at the age of five when he took a ceramics evening class at the Lincoln School of Art. He was educated at The King’s School, Canterbury, where he was taught pottery by the potter Geoffrey Whiting,

When he was 17, de Waal began a two-year apprenticeship with Whiting, deferring his entry into University of Cambridge. During the apprenticeship he made hundreds of pots, such as casseroles and honey pots. In 1983, de Waal went to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, to read English where he was awarded a scholarship in 1983 and graduated with first class honours in 1986.

In 1990 he obtained a Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation Scholarship, under which he spent a year obtaining a post-graduate diploma in Japanese language at Sheffield University and continued an additional year’s study. Whilst studying in Japan at the Mejiro Ceramics studio he also worked on a monograph of Bernard Leach, researching his papers and journals in the archive room of the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum. During this time he began to make series of porcelain jars with pushed-in, gestural sides, arranged in groups and sequences.

On returning to Britain in 1993, de Waal began living in London and made his distinctive ceramics, porcelain with a celadon glaze. Their shapes were essentially classical but with indentations or pinches and subtle variations in tone and texture. The pots became very fashionable, and in 1995 he had his first of many solo exhibitions.

His work remained broadly within the Anglo-Oriental tradition but he also studied the modernists, and the Bauhaus movement in particular. In visits to Gothic cathedrals as a child de Waal had attended small spaces within large buildings. Whilst teaching at the University of Westminster he began to consider how his work might help to re-order the interior space of the museums and art galleries he visited. In his current work he has moved away from making single objects to the production of groups of objects to be viewed in relation to openings and spaces. Most of his work consists of cylindrical porcelain pots with pale celadon glazes. He believes that the East and West may meet in porcelain; for example, that there the ethos of China’s medieval Song dynasty may encounter the modernist ethos of the Bauhaus.

Learn more about de Waal’s work at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London: see the Signs & Wonders video

The acquisition given to the Centre of Ceramic Art by de Waal is part of his most recent production which is dark in colour and a departure from earlier white works, and can be seen as a reference to the grim North. Its shape is a response to Gothic lancet style windows in cathedrals/minsters that are often seen singly or in pairs.

Edmund has said about the gift that ‘It is a piece that comes out of thinking about the lancet window and north light- hence York. These are new glazes- part of a rethinking of how shadows work. And it is just a way of waving affectionately at Janet- and Dean Milner White and Bill Ismay…all of whom are part of my earlier northern life…’

The gift is a present to Janet Barnes, CEO of York Museums Trust to commemorate her work with the Trust now she has retired. Janet said, ‘I am delighted by Edmunds generous donation of North Land to CoCA. I have known Edmund since the 1980’s when he was living and working in Sheffield.  At that time I was the curator of the Ruskin Gallery and remember well visiting Edmunds studio and seeing his beautiful porcelain bowls displayed on the floor in his terraced house. We have kept in touch over the years and having a piece of his new work given in recognition of my work at York is a great honour for me.’

This new work shows Edmund’s interest in vitrines and collections, as well as his foray into dark coloured glazes during the last year. We have previously loaned an installation from him titled ‘Predella’, which we displayed to great affect amidst the religious works- visitors really enjoyed seeing his work in that context.


Edmund visited the gallery on Saturday January 23 to see his work on show in the gallery space. He was given a tour by Helen Walsh, curator of ceramics and the new chief executive of the Trust, Reyahn King.