Quantum Gravitation

Whenever I announce or talk about a landscape photography workshop I'm doing , I inevitably see messages that knock workshops like that.

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If it is wood, chestnut or elm, it is even lighter than the ivory.

You see the patina more easily on these wooden ones: there is a faint shine on the spine of the brindled wolf and on the tumbling acrobats locked in their embrace. A few have inlaid eyes of amber or horn.

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Some of the older ones are slightly worn away: the haunch of the faun resting on leaves has lost its markings. There is a slight split, an almost imperceptible fault line on the cicada. Who dropped it? Where and when? I first saw them lit-up at night in a long vitrine in the sitting-room of my great-uncle Iggie, in his apartment looking out over Tokyo. I was 17 and had come to Japan to spend a summer making pots.

I was halfway through my two-year apprenticeship to a rather severe English potter. Iggie and Jiro, his Japanese friend in the adjoining apartment, looked after me, bought me some smarter clothes from one of the department stores in the Ginza, took me to the theatre and gave me my first whisky sours in the bar at the Imperial Hotel.

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  7. He would say that these ivories were the reason he had come to Japan, an inheritance from Vienna and Paris. He had brought them home. When Iggie died I stood in the temple on the outskirts of Tokyo where he was to be buried and after the sutras had been chanted and he had received his kaimyo, the Buddhist name that would help him through the next life, I said the Kaddish for the Baron Ignace Leon von Ephrussi, fashion designer, soldier, banker, "long-term resident of Tokyo", the last of a dynasty.

    And afterwards, back in the apartment, Jiro picked up his brush and wrote and sealed a document to say that when he had gone, I should look after this collection.

    Cast a cold eye

    I knew the outlines of the story. The collection had been bought in Paris by a cousin of my great-great-grandfathers called Charles Ephrussi, an art critic and a passionate supporter of the Impressionists. You can just see a rufus haze of beard. He is deep in conversation with his secretary, the young poet Jules Laforgue. Charles had given the collection of netsuke — and the grand black lacquer vitrine with deep velvet shelves and a mirrored back which housed them — as a wedding-present to my great-great grandfather Viktor when he married a beautiful young socialite.

    This extravagant gift arrived in the vast Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse in Vienna just as the new century was about to begin. And I know that the Ephrussi family were almost unimaginably rich — rich even among their circle of Jewish bankers. But what concerned me was how to navigate my way through this parade of sepia memories, the gilt and marble blur of lost houses, estates, a golden-dinner service, balls and racehorses, flunkeys.

    These objects seemed too specific to be co-opted into a narrative of loss, annoyingly melancholic. I have a strong aversion to nostalgia for a past that isn't yours. And the thought of yet another posh Mitteleuropa memoir set to Strauss, cross-generational misery-lit, made me slightly sick. I was anxious because what I'd been given with these netsuke was far, far more interesting than a generic set of anecdotes. I'd been given objects with memories. I'd been given part of a story, a few echoes, a sense of untold narratives.

    And this challenge: anecdotalise this odd collection for the rest of your life. Or work it out.

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    I make things for my living. This means that how objects are handled and where they are placed is a question that has been at the heart of my life for 30 years. But it also means that I am endlessly letting objects go. My porcelain vessels get wrapped in tissue, and then in bubble-wrap, and are crated up and lifted into the backs of vans, and I sign a piece of paper and they are gone.

    They are off into the world of commodities to be sold, collected, handed on, given. And so I have a strong sense of the story-telling around how objects get handed on. I am giving you this because I love you. Because it was given to me. Because I bought it somewhere special. Because you will care for it. Because it will complicate your life.

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    Because it will make someone else envious. There is no easy story in legacy. What is remembered and what is forgotten? There can be a chain of forgetting, the rubbing away of previous ownership as much as the slow accretion of stories. What is being passed on to me with these small Japanese objects? I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden thing that I am rolling between my fingers — hard and tricky and Japanese — and where it has been.

    I want to be able to walk round each room it has been placed in, to know what pictures were on the walls and how the light falls from the windows. And I want to know whose hands it has been in and what they felt about it and thought about it. If they thought about it. I dislike anthropomorphising objects, but I want to know what it has witnessed, whether I can talk of the memory of objects. This was the challenge. Find the places where the collection had been- in Paris, Vienna and Tokyo, and try to find out what it might have meant to open the vitrine of netsuke and reach in and pick one out and roll it in your hands.

    Find the secret history of touch. I had memories of conversations with my grandmother and great-uncle, a slim file of letters and photographs from my father: the family archive held in a Somerfield plastic bag. I knew where they had lived. It seemed scant evidence to go on. So I go and stand outside Charles Ephrussi's first house in Paris, the Hotel Ephrussi on a hill of golden, neo-classical mansions, and look up at the windows to the rooms where he held his salons.

    Up there, hanging alongside the rich burgundy embroideries he had bought in Italy, were his new Degas and Monet and Renoir paintings. This was where the netsuke collection first lived, its first resting-place in the heart of passionate talk about what art could mean. It was also his study. This is where Charles wrote passionately about the need to look at paintings and sculpture — and then look again.

    And this is where Charles, Jewish, charming and social, a collector, art historian and editor, entertained and encouraged Proust. Charles becomes one of the models for Charles Swann. So I find that I am writing a book about memory haunted by Proust. And then I have to leave my Parisian archives and go to Vienna, and I walk past the Palais Ephrussi which seems to take up an absurd amount of skyline on the Ringstrasse, with its caryatids and urns and towers.

    The Palais belonged to a parade of make-believe buildings — a Potemkin city of paste-board and plaster, according to the fierce social critic Adolf Loos. This fairytale palace of gilded ceilings, a statue of Apollo in the courtyard, corridors full of paintings, marble and malachite, was also the family home of my fabulously-dressed great-grandmother, my bibliophilic great-grandfather and their four children.

    The netsuke were relegated to the dressing room, a room in the charge of her maid Anna. But in this implacable palais this kind of modernity was kept firmly at bay, just as the great oak doors on to the Ring were closed to the anti-semitic brawling from the university opposite.

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    His wife, the beautiful Frau Efrussi, is "a lady: Jewish: but a lady". And here in Vienna I have to deal with other kinds of archive. Not just the wills and inventories but the lists in the Israelitische Kultursgemeinde in Vienna, each member of the Jewish community recorded over years. And here I find the bank details, the lists of objects requisitioned by the Gestapo, comments by Viennese art-historians debating the merits of family pictures, the arguments over which should be sent to Berlin for Hitler to look over.

    It is here in Vienna that I begin to uncover the extraordinary story of what happened to the netsuke during the war, the story of Anna's smuggling of the collection to safety, one piece at a time, in her pockets.

    Anthony after she'd joined the Catholic Church.