Ever heard of these before? They are intricate carvings in bone or wood of the finest delicate features often small enough to fit into the palm of your hard. They could be a small animal, a scene, a person doing something.
They are Japanese works of art that appeared in the 17th Century. As with a lot of things in life there was a practical purpose to their existence. "Ne" means root and "Tsuke" means to attach and they were used as toggle buttons attached to sashes from which little boxes carried small personal items, as traditional Japanese garments did not have pockets.
In the late 19th century netsuke became quite sought after as art objects and to this day they command good prices depending on the intricacy and the nature of the carving. This is a picture of a vitrine of netsuke taken at a well- known antique market in London on one of my recent trips.So keep your eye out for them.
I am introducing them to you in much the same way that Edmund De Waal was introduced to them. He inherited them from his Uncle Iggy who died in Japan with 264 netsuke to his name.
This started Edmund on an interesting journey of discovery and historical research in which he traced the arrival of the netsuke first in France where they had been bought by his relative Charles Ephrussi and where they lived for many years before they were sent as a wedding present to newlyweds in Vienna, Viktor and Emmy Ephrussi.
They lived in a glass vitrine and were played with by the children and then the Nazis came to disrupt not only their lives, but to plunder and destroy their homes and their belongings and to even erase their own identities.
The netsuke, by a small act of incredible selflessness, were saved by a servant who took them one by one out of the vitrine and stored them under her bed. Years later she had the chance to return them to one of the children of the family, Elizabeth, Edmund's grandmother.She kept them until her brother, great Uncle Iggy was offered a posting in Japan and then he decided to the take the netsuke home.
Edmund de Waal, who is one of the UKs best known potters gave up nearly two years of his life to research the story of the netsuke which he then put down in a fascinating book called " The Hare with the Amber Eyes" after one such netsuke. It is a brilliant read, with perceptive insights into Paris life of the 1870s, the subsequent joys of the Ephrussis life in Vienna until everything was brought down by the Nazis coming into Austria. A book I thoroughly enjoyed but which also gave me the added joy of finding out about these weird but wonderful Japanese carvings.