The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance

Rob Attar reviews an unusual history of a group of Japanese carvings and their owners

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Reviewed by: Rob Attar
Author: Edmund de Waal
Publisher: Vintage
Price (RRP): £8.99

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In the background of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party stands a smartly dressed figure engaged in conversation.

That man is Charles Ephrussi, a collector, patron and critic of art who lived in opulence in late 19th-century Paris. Like much of European society of the time, Charles was enchanted by Japonisme. In the 1870s he acquired 264 miniature wood and ivory carvings, known as netsuke.

Fast-forward to the present day and Edmund de Waal, the great-grandson of Charles Ephrussi’s cousin, is the owner of the netsuke. De Waal, himself a ceramic artist, is fascinated by these exquisite objects and determines to trace their journey from Charles’s study to his own London home.

As the netsuke travel from one generation to the next we follow the fortunes of the Ephrussi family who rise to become one of the foremost Jewish banking clans, only to have their lives shattered by anti-Semitic persecution under the Nazis.

The survival of the netsuke is remarkable, as is this book, which combines art, history, travelogue and a dash of philosophy in a cohesive, readable way. It was a surprise bestseller when published in hardback last summer and the winner of the 2010 Costa Biography Award.

Elegant and charming like the carvings themselves, The Hare with Amber Eyes is a book that many readers will treasure.

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Rob Attar is the deputy editor of BBC History Magazine