De Waal was born in Nottingham, England, the son of Esther Aline (née Lowndes-Moir) and Victor de Waal, who became the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral. His grandfather was Hendrik de Waal, a Dutch businessman who moved to England. His paternal grandmother Elisabeth was a member of the Ephrussi family, whose history he chronicled in The Hare with Amber Eyes. Elisabeth de Waal's first novel, The Exiles Return, was published by Persephone Books in 2013. De Waal's siblings include barrister John de Waal, Alex de Waal who is director of the World Peace Foundation, and Caucasus expert Thomas de Waal.
Thrown Bottle by de Waal from the W. A. Ismay Studio Ceramics Collection at York Art Gallery
, 1997 - an early work in porcelain by de Waal
De Waal's interest in pottery began at the age of five when he took a ceramics evening class at the Lincoln School of Art.