Jacky Klein, author of Thames & Hudson’s bestselling monograph on Grayson Perry, tells us what it was like to meet and befriend the transvestite potter now acclaimed as a ‘national treasure’…
‘The first time I went to interview the artist Grayson Perry at his house in Islington, north London, my bike got stolen from outside his front door. ‘Ooh, I wouldn’t do that,’ he had warned me as I locked it up on some nearby railings. ‘It can get a bit rough round here.’ But I was so keen to get going, and probably embarrassed too about bringing my muddy wheels into his front room, that I ignored his advice. What I now remember most from that initial meeting (beyond the bicycle fiasco) are the pleasures of sharing company with an artist who was so immediately open and chatty. His distinctive, booming, deep-throated laugh also caught me unawares – as it often still does.
It’s been a few years since that initial encounter, and Grayson Perry has been on a roll. In recent months, he’s been awarded a CBE and been appointed a Royal Academician; he’s won a BAFTA for his TV series about taste and had his tragi-comic morality-tale tapestries, The Vanity of Small Differences, exhibited at the heart of the RA’s annual Summer Exhibition (they’re currently on a national tour). Now he’s taken up the mantle of the prestigious BBC Reith Lectures, the first visual artist to do so in the series’ nearly 60-year history. His biting and brilliant lectures focus on the art world and its machinations, and the last of the four is broadcast this morning. All of them are available online via the BBC website.
Perry is now the most popular British artist since Lucian Freud and David Hockney (the latter of whom he rather symbolically pipped to the post for an award last year, when he won the South Bank Sky Arts Award for his exhibition at the British Museum). I had the rare chance to spend a lot of time with him, over many months, while we were preparing his big monograph. The book is an attempt to map – for the very first time – his life’s work, as well as the imagination and inspiration that lie behind it.
The Reith presenter Sue Lawley describes how Grayson is ‘extraordinarily good fun to work with’ and how right she is. I recall many a happy hour spent in Islington or at the favourite family spot on the Sussex coast, plied by regular cups of tea and bananas (a Grayson afternoon ritual), interspersed with vigorous seaside walks and the occasional arctic dip with his wife, Philippa, talking about art, the art world, childhood, class, religion, belief and much more. Psychotherapy was a subject we discussed a lot, Grayson having had six years of it himself, and Philippa being a therapist (though not his, it should be said). He memorably described to me how therapy was ‘like going to a good weepy movie every week, where I was the star’. On another occasion, he told he how he thinks of himself as ‘a cross between a punk and a hobbit’; once, he mentioned in passing how his life philosophy has always been to ‘take the path of most resistance’. Grayson’s conversation is a delight, littered with these sorts of succinct and crystalline epithets.
The book we eventually made together, filled on almost every page with Grayson’s own reflections taken from our many hours of recorded conversation, explores his art from the earliest pieces he made around 1980 (while he was still a student at Portsmouth Poly) to his most recent pots, tapestries, prints and sculptures. His art is rich with literary and visual allusions and with the works that have inspired him, whether paintings by the American outsider artist Henry Darger, altarpieces by Pieter Bruegel, Afghan war rugs, Sumatran batiks, photographs of Victorian transvesites or satires by Aubrey Beardsley. His popularity without doubt stems from the visual richness, intelligence and accessibility of his art – but it doesn’t come just from that. I think it comes also from a host of traits which the Reith lectures have so clearly brought to the fore – just the kinds of things we tend to relish in our friends, or hope to encounter in a stranger we meet at a dinner party. He is funny, open and enthusiastic, passionate, good-humoured and generous. He is totally lacking in pretension. He wears his heart – and indeed his fantasies – on his sleeve. His politics and intellect are carried lightly, and his caustic humour – tracing its roots back to William Hogarth, George Cruikshank and the other 18th-century satirists – is never malicious, so often is it directed, endearingly, at himself.
The BBC has put together a brilliant online hub around the lectures, my favourite bit being the pitch-perfect drawings (made on Grayson’s new computerised drawing screen) which dig an elbow into the ribs of the contemporary art world. His ‘Art Quality Gauge’ purportedly helps you determine an artwork’s value (you decide whether it would fit best in ‘mum’s back bedroom’, on ‘a roundabout in Milton Keynes’, in ‘an oligarch’s entrance hall’ or on ‘Elton John’s lawn’.
Grayson is, of course, part of this system, and he knows it all too well. No artist has more honestly opened up the workings of the art world for all of us to see, and – in the process – invited us into his unique creative universe.’
The Vanity of Small Differences tapestries are on show at Manchester Art Gallery until 2 February 2014 (and then on tour through to October 2014 at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the Walker Art Gallery and Leeds City Art Gallery).
In this first major monograph on the artist Grayson Perry, writer and art historian Jacky Klein explores his work through a discussion of his major themes and subjects. It is available now for £24.95 from the Thames & Hudson website.