Something else, somewhere other
– Edmund de Waal
The first time I visited Waddesdon was in winter. Mist wrapped itself round the towers and turrets. The sculptures were shrouded against the frost. The house itself was at sleep, room after room with carpets rolled up, porcelain in boxes, windows closed. It was Visconti, a stage-set.
I had come to talk about an album of photographs I had found. I had spent years searching for the echoes and traces of my Jewish family, a European dynasty of bankers who had intermarried with Rothschilds, and briefly blazed during the Belle Epoque. And amongst the lists, letters and archives, I had found the record of a ball in Vienna at the turn of the century, eighteen sepia photographs of young Jewish girls dressing up as Old Master pictures, a Pieter de Hooch servant girl, my great-grandmother Emmy as Titian’s Isabella D’Este. It was masquerade, enacting roles, trying out what it felt to be someone else. There seemed common ground with Waddesdon, built just as my own family were building their more modest houses in Paris, Switzerland and on the Ringstrasse in Vienna. It was how you assimilated into the country you had adopted and still kept your sense of a hinterland. How to be Jewish in a society that cannot place you, how to place yourself in society.
Out of conversations came the challenge of making work for Waddesdon. But how to make anything for this extraordinary place, this series of rooms in which every surface holds an object, every wall is layered with tapestry, paintings, panelling? My work is austere. Waddesdon is not. Bluntly, almost comically, the question was asked ‘Where is the room for something new?’. My pact was not to move anything out, but to only bring objects in. This meant working out how to create installations to place on eighteenth century console tables, on marble, against mirrors and panelling, hard up against Sèvres, close to putti. I had to think of work that had to be contingent on its surroundings: it had to be put on something else while keeping its autonomy.
In thinking my way into this commission I had the strongest feeling that this house, so full of things, was also a house of absences as much as presences. All places contain some oscillation of memory but this is a place which has been created not only with objects and pictures from other places, inheritances from other members of this resolutely diasporic European family, but with boiseries from eighteenth-century Parisian townhouses, chimneypieces from long-disappeared chateaux. Waddesdon presents a vision of a new family making an old house – one constructed from elements taken from other places, other households, other collections. When you pick up a piece of porcelain and turn it over, the labels and marks of factory, artist, date, decorator, collector, accession numbers, are a map of the transit of the object, a palimpsest of ownership. ‘The most distinguished trait of a collection will always be its transmissability’, wrote Walter Benjamin, of the way in which objects move between owners and create new meaning in new contexts. Out of the mists on a winter’s day in Buckinghamshire comes this house and its collections where the oscillations of otherness, the elsewhere, the absent, are so strong that you are wrong-footed. Where are you when you walk in?
As you would hope the house is full of gold, a haze around the furniture, the porcelain. Gilding is intriguing. To gild porcelain, or white gold as it was known in the early eighteenth century, is to gild the lily, add an extra level of impossibility to the fantasy inherent in this material. Gilding porcelain comes to me through the grand chords of Sèvres and Meissen, but also through the threads of gold that mend the course of a crack in Japanese teabowl or a broken Chinese jar. So it acts as both acknowledgement of status and simultaneously of loss. In several of the installations I have separated the gilding from the objects – a stack of plates in six different white glazes is intersected by a single lambent golden dish in the installation all and more in the Dining Room. In the trio of small vitrines of black porcelain vessels in the Grey Drawing Room there are golden dishes that capture all the ambient gilding and pool them into small glowing jars. This seems appropriate for this particular room where everything is something else. It is a baroque riposte to truth to materials; here one material segues into another, your hand touches gold on the arms of the chair in which you sit. There are plaques of porcelain set into the furniture, one thing in the form of another. This is an interior as performance, full of what Martina Droth has called 'impossible objects'.
Several of my installations are responses to particular parts of the collection itself. In the Breakfast Room a pair of vitrines, between two breaths, sit opposite two animal figures made at Meissen for Augustus the Strong's Japanese Palace in 1732/3. These vast porcelain models are dense with history. They were almost impossible to make; the autocratic Augustus and the highly ambitious Kandler were equals in demand. Think of the mass and bulk of some Harlequin or Shepherd girl and then look at the heft of this Nanny goat. You can see the rivulets of cracks that score the model – they only just survived their firing. My vitrines of porcelain contain a density of porcelain vessels to echo these great figures. In the fascination of what’s difficult, an installation in the West Gallery, there is a line of black lacquer boxes lined with lead containing a series of plain cylinders in trios which come together to form a garniture based around the extravagant clock. There are many hidden formal structures of display in Waddesdon. Some are pairings, or mirroring, some sets and arrangements. Others are ways of picking up a rhythm within objects and playing it out, as you might take a theme and play with it in baroque music. For seriality doesn't just belong to minimalism, it is abundantly, complicatedly explored in the eighteenth century interiors. Repetitions are the grammar of these rooms, and as with any grammar it has to be understood before deployed. For a great black lacquered desk in the Morning Room – a desk to sign a treaty at –I have made a series of seven black lacquer trays inset with glass, each one containing five or six small black porcelain dishes. An installation about ink and writing, of course, but also about the pleasures of repetition, of picking something up and starting again. Again.
Other installations spin off from ideas about the house rather than particular settings. The first time I came to Waddesdon I was struck by the beauty – and the melancholy – of the stacks of wooden boxes made to contain porcelain. They were placed next to the great fireplace in the Red Drawing Room. In this, the grandest room at Waddesdon, a Savonnerie carpet on the floor, Gainsborough and Reynolds portraits on the walls, the sense of works in transit, seemed haunting. And so I have made a series of intimate installations, on the properties of fire, each contained within a lead-lined box. Objects to pack up and take with you. Under Reynolds' portrait of Thaïs with her burning firebrand in the Morning Room, a room for reading and writing and conversation, I have placed three series of huge vessels in large glass boxes. A walk in the 8e came from the great plate-glass windows of Parisian arcades, of the slow, wandering movement of the flaneur. Another group of five small opaque cases, each with a single vessel, a promise, is scattered through the house, high up on marble brackets, or amongst books. It can be found but not reassembled; it is meant to be dispersed.
There are two pieces at Windmill Hill, the new Rothschild archive building on the Waddesdon estate, which was designed by Stephen Marshall and opened in 2011. I love archives. There is a peculiar tension between all the structures of organisation, the taxonomies, the filing, the racks and cases, and the passionate, untidy, fragmentary stories they contain. You go to an archive to answer a question, check a fact, and come away with an idea, a lyrical note, another query, more uncertainty. So here are a pair of lines of porcelain to go along a table, a contemporary echo of the great porcelain tablepieces made for conversation by Meissen. I have called it, in honour of the hidden function of archives, remembering X, I think of Y. On a wall is Unpacking my Library. The title comes from the haunting essay by Walter Benjamin in which he talks of where books come from, whose collections they had been, how they were bought.
Over the last few years I have been developing a way of making which I think of as a kind of ghosting. I make a piece, a garniture of seven porcelain jars to be formally arrayed as a rhythmical group. I think as I sit at my wheel of it as a snatch of music, a harmony. I think of where I have seen these groups before, how they animate a chimneypiece, or the top of an eighteenth century chest. But when I then re-make it from memory it becomes abstracted, and strangely this makes it much more real for me. It becomes kindred to the blurred Polaroid, the scribbled list, more keenly accurate to the moment than any grand attempt at recreation. In repeating forms I find that similarity heightens difference. Something else, somewhere other, the pair of vitrines made for the Tower Drawing Room, is an exploration of lost collections, of the lacunae where objects once were. It ghosts itself, works on a memory of somewhere other. There are echoes of Belle Epoque collector’s cabinets, of the Schatzkammer, the cabinet of curiosities. And in this house any vitrine must live alongside the idea of being on show, of dressing-up, of performance.
Central to my response to Waddesdon is my use of vitrines. I spent five years tracing the history and meaning of my Jewish family's collection of netsuke, objects to take out and pass around; I became slightly obsessed with the vitrine that had housed them. And I came to the conclusion that it acted as a kind of threshold. They suspended objects from the motion they normally had, paused them in the world. A couple of years ago I started to use wall-mounted vitrines within my work and found that there was a quality in this stilling that I love. There is a charge in the air that surrounded the objects behind the glass. It is a framing device for objects that allows them their autonomy.
Vitrines also act in a skeletal way – they are a line drawn in space, a graphic way of describing a particular volume amongst all the other volumes of rooms, or houses, or landscapes. So this series of vitrines for Waddesdon are my first attempt to see if I can draw in the air, hold these collections of porcelain vessels in this particular way.
But this is the point. It is the gamble of making something out of a fragile material and then the act of putting it into the world as an installation, a collection, a breath holding together these objects that can so easily be scattered. It is taking a bet on people, family, history that it will stay together, but knowing that it often does not, cannot. And Waddesdon is a place where these ideas are held together. Beautifully and poignantly.