Edmund de Waal shares his favourite antique
The award-winning potter and author on why he can't resist the purity of an early Meissen cup. Interview Alice Hancock. Portrait Ben McKee
I've been journeying towards this cup for a long time. I first saw one like it in the Victoria and Albert Museum when I was a child. There's a lot of porcelain there, especially gilded and swagged German porcelain decorated with nymphs, so the purity of this white cup was incredibly powerful to me.
I kept seeking out white porcelain in museums all over the world, especially early white Meissen cups like this one. I felt that I couldn't write my new book – a sort of autobiography about how white has remained a constant in my life – without having this cup in my hand, so I bought one in Bonhams. It's now on a shelf with all the other porcelain I have collected on my travels.
The development of porcelain in the west is one of the great stories of discovery. No one knew how to make it, so all porcelain came from Japan or China. But at the start of the 18th century in Dresden, a great ruler called Augustus the Strong was an obsessive collector and kept an alchemist and a philosopher locked in a castle for 10 years until they found a formula for making porcelain.
I started making pots when I was very young. My first was a white bowl when I was five. I suppose it's quite odd to know so early what you want to do in life, although often you meet people who have always had music in their life. It just happened to be pots for me.
Tactility is hugely important to me. I like to know how something feels. The Meissen teacup is extraordinary because it weighs nothing. Next to it on the shelf is an early piece of English porcelain by William Cookworthy that weighs a ton.
I don't collect in the sense of accumulating a collection but I do get things I feel I need. All the objects on my shelf I've bought because I've felt I needed to have a Meissen piece or a Chinese item. The thing about having objects near you is that they keep you in focus.
I will always look in an antiques shop. There's such a sense of possibility. You might discover something that has been lost to the world.
One of my favourite finds was an ancient Chinese pot that I picked up while travelling along the border between Ethiopia and Somalia 25 years ago. It was in a merchant's house and I remember excitedly saying how incredible it was – at which point the price increased about 25 times.
I've always felt a total interpenetration of the past in my work. It partly comes from growing up in cold medieval vicarages and it's partly a material feeling too. Porcelain is in itself 1,000 years old but also totally contemporary. I love working my installations into old places such as Waddesdon. I am very aware of history while being totally obsessed with what is happening now.