“I like the idea of my art being a covetable object; I like preciousness. A lot of art seems to flaunt its throw-away character … But you have to sail out into the dangerous sea of fine art with these crafted works.” – Grayson Perry
Grayson Perry was born on 24 March 1960, in Chelmsford Essex. His father left the family when Perry was very young, which is the event he has said has had the greatest impact on his life. As a child he would take great interest in drawing and building model aeroplanes – both of which would become recurrent themes in his work – but he also considered joining the army. It wasn’t until an art teacher of his suggested he went to art college that he considered a future in art – the only profession that could fully accommodate Perry’s vast imagination and experimentation, that often incorporates Alan Measles, the teddy bear he has had for the last 50 years and describes as “the benign dictator of my fantasy worlds. He was my prime candidate for deification and I set about making works that celebrated his heroism.”
Now one of the most famous British artists (and transvestites), who has even curated his own exhibition, The Tomb of the Unkown Craftsmen, at the British Museum; we take a look at a few of the numerous things you should know about the multidisciplinary renaissance man, and his alter ego, Claire.
His Early Career
With the encouragement from one of his teachers at aged 16 Perry did a foundation course at Braintree College of Further Education from 1978 to 1979, instead of joining the Army as he had previously been contemplating. From here he went on to study for a BA in Fine Art at Portsmouth Polytechnic, graduating in 1982. He exhibited his first piece of pottery at the New Contemporaries show at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1980.
He says now he did very little pottery at college, but recalls “a friend who I was squatting with, who was one of the main inspirations in the squat – a very lively character – she was a trained potter and went to evening classes to keep her hand in. She said, “Oh, come along. The teacher’s nice, and it’s free. Evening classes were free then, if you were on the dole. So I went along and quickly realised that it was a way of making something tangible, saleable and exhibitable. I also liked the fact that it was kind of unfashionable, it had a bad reputation in the art world …”
Perry started making plates as they were the easiest to make, and he would create one piece per lesson. Now, Perry will take up to 6 months to complete a piece. His works often depict social injustices or tell tales involving dark, social satire; one critic has called Perry “the social critic from hell”.
The Vanity Of Small Differences
Though Perry is most famous for his pottery he has also made successful forays into tapestry. In 2012 Perry created the documentary All In The Best Possible Taste which chronicled Perry’s “safari amongst the taste tribes of Britain”, and the creation of six tapestries depicting all that he had found, based around a character called Tim Rakewell (the idea for the tapestries based loosely on Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress). Perry said of the tapestries “The tapestries tell a story of class mobility. I think nothing has such a strong influence on our aesthetic taste as the social class we grow up in.”
Perry then won a BAFTA for Best Specialist Factual Programme for All In The Best Possible Taste, which would go on his shelf to join his Turner Prize, won in 2003.
(Previously, in 2009 Perry created the 15m x 3m Walthamstow Tapestry (picutured), that went on show in the London Gallery. The vast tapestry depicts hundreds of brand names surrounding large figures in various stages of life from birth to death.)
He Has A Sincere Interest In Fashion
Perry was once quoted in Vogue as saying : “Of course I worry about being fashionable…although I don’t think about fashion so much, or trends, but I do like to wear a nice frock.” During the 80’s Perry spent time squatting with milliner Stephen Jones and Boy George, where each would compete to see who could dress in the most outrageous outfits. From here, Perry’s alternative fashion-sense has gone from strength to strength; 2004 saw the beginning of the Grayson Perry Project at Central St Martins, where the final project for second year students involves a five-week struggle to conceive, design, print and make an outfit for Claire (Perry’s transvestite alter-ego). Perry explained to The Guardian about the courses success: “Not only am I tutor, muse and model, but client, too. The project works well because I am a real customer. Every year, I buy up to 14 outfits for £500 each.”
In 2011, Perry designed a trunk for fashion monolith Louis Vuitton, where he fused the label’s traditional style with his own more colourful and socially challenging work. He said to Vogue: “The trunk will look good in 50 years.”
He’s Built A Secular Chapel
In 2015 the external work was completed on a home-come-chapel in Wrabness, Essex, commissioned by Living Architecture (the charity founded by Alain de Botton) and created by Perry working with FAT Architecture. It overlooks the River Stour, and is known as Julie’s House, or A House For Essex. The house is for a fictional Essex woman called Julie May Cope who Perry describes as “a working-class woman who went with the default settings of her generation”, such as choosing marriage over education, but who had “a redemptive second act”. Writing in The Guardian, Ellis Woodman said, “Sporting a livery of green and white ceramic tiles, telephone-box red joinery and a gold roof, it is not easy to miss. … Decoration is everywhere: from the external tiles embossed with motifs referencing Julie’s rock-chick youth to extravagant tapestries recording her life’s full narrative. Perry has contributed ceramic sculptures, modelled on Irish Sheelanagigs, which celebrate her as a kind of latter-day earth mother while the delivery driver’s moped has even been repurposed as a chandelier suspended above the double-height living room.” In defense of the cluttered style Perry had previously claimed that “I think that minimalism has become kitsch”.
Perry said the creation of the house with church-like qualities “goes back to the doodles I did 20 years ago with my daughter: we’d imagine a person, and then that person’s family, and then the house they live in. It made me think it would be quite nice to design a building, which developed into a church.”
Most Expensive Works
Many of Perry’s works regularly sell well into the tens of thousands, though many others have not yet come up for auction since their original purchase and are either privately owned or owned by galleries. But his urn titled The Triumph of Innocence sold for £82,250 at Christies in 2012, and the etching Map of an Englishman sold for £41,300 in 2008. In 2010 the etching Print for a Politician, was aptly purchased by the government for £14,000 – one of the most expensive items on the government’s art collection list.