Edmund de Waal is one of our most gifted workers in ceramics - his minimalistic works grace galleries and collections throughout the world. As a young man, he was given a scholarship to work in Japan where he was introduced to his Uncle Ignace - Iggy - and his collection of netsuke, the beautiful carved belt-toggles for kimono. These netsuke had travelled full-circle, having first been purchased by Iggy's uncle Charles Ephrussi in Paris at the end of the 19th Century. This book is the story of the netsuke - but it is also the story of a family and of the 20th Century itself. It is a work as delicate and sensitive yet tough and resilient as the netsuke themselves.
Charles Ephrussi was the youngest son of Leon, the head of the Paris branch of the Ephrussi banking family. The Ephrussi were originally a Jewish merchant family hailing from Odessa in the Crimea. Like the Rothschilds, they had successfully set up office the major cities in Europe - London, Paris and Vienna - and flourished. Charles was more interested in Art than in banking, and he became an influential writer and collector in the Parisian art world of the late 19th Century (you can see him in a top hat towards the back of Renoir's "Le Dejeuner des Canotiers"). As Japan opened up to the West, and the "devaliser" of Japan fed the craze for Japonisme which was sweeping Paris, Charles bought a collection of 264 netsuke from the dealer Philippe Sichel.
De Waal writes about the netsuke with the sensitivity of someone who works creatively with his fingers every day. He describes not only their appearance, but their feel, their texture, their balance. He believes that they must held, played with and explored by children, enjoyed daily. Charles, however, has no children, and you can sense that De Waal approves when they are given as wedding present to his cousin Viktor in Vienna, when he marries the beautiful young socialite Emmy Schey von Koromla. The netsuke end up in her dressing-room, where her children play with them as she spends interminable hours with her devoted maid Anna every day ensuring that she is dressed according to the latest fashions.
Viktor has just had the magnificent Palais Ephrussi built on the Ringstrasse, and the family seems unassailable. But the convulsions of the 20th Century are about to strike imperial Vienna. The bank fares badly in the First World War. But this is nothing compared to the horrors of Vienna for Jewish family following the Anschluss. How the netsuke survived is one remarkable part of the story.
But this is a multi-layered book - the fate of the Ephrussi family is much more poignant, and explains how the netsuke came to be owned by the son of a Church of England priest. This is a story of a collection, of a family, and of a personal search as de Waal unpeels the history of the Ephrussis and in doing so explores out what it meant to be a rich Jewish family in Middle-Europe in the 20th Century. And if this isn't enough for the reader, it is written in a most beautiful, limpid, approachable style - this book really is as much a treasure as the wonderful netsuke that it describes.