Issue Number: 112
The recently elected Academician, ceramicist Grayson Perry, creates dream figures and heroes from his childhood world in a studio tucked away in rural Sussex, writes Fiona Maddocks. Photograph by Eamonn McCabe
Carved on a concrete beam across Grayson Perry’s studio in rural Sussex is the mantra ‘Creativity is mistakes’. This is not some recherché phrase lifted from the classics but the artist’s own concise summing up of his philosophy of life: ‘Art is mostly the result of doing something wrong, then coming up with a different solution,’ he says. ‘Learning that mistakes are acceptable, and an essential part of the process, is a big lesson. You have to make a mark, any mark, and take it from there.’
Perry, 51, is one of the newest Royal Academicians, having been elected in March of this year. A Turner Prize winner in 2003, he was loosely associated with the group formerly known as Young British Artists. Now he is delighted to be an RA ‘insider’, as he jokingly refers to his status, and chuckles at the idea that he might, in any sense, have retired from rebellion.
Grayson Perry RA at his purpose-built studio near Eastbourne with a model for a ship that will form part of his forthcoming exhibition at the British Museum. Photo © Eamonn McCabe
‘I’ve never shied away from being part of the establishment. I love the fact that it might be seen as uncool to be a Royal Academician. My whole methodology is about finding out what’s uncool, and doing it!’ He laughs expansively. ‘I’m always amused when teenagers say they would hate to be part of the mainstream. Aren’t the “mainstream” the ones who are rich and famous?’
He collected his RA membership medal dressed up, singularly and gorgeously, as his ultra-feminine alter ego Claire. His work – characteristically his large, richly coloured and often sexually explicit ceramics – commands its own attention but Claire has given him a different level of celebrity. ‘If the demands of an event mean you would change your shirt before you go out, even if it’s just for lunch, I’ll put on a frock and go as Claire. Not if I’m just going out to buy a sandwich, mind you.’
On the day we meet, he is Grayson: tall, strong, blonde and blue-eyed, a Harley-Davidson-riding Viking type. His black motorbike, spotlessly shiny, sits in the drive of the cottage he lives in part-time, on the coast near Eastbourne. It crouches on the edge of a steep, enclosed garden, which leads down to a cluster of old apple trees. Raised vegetable beds show signs of industry. The mower is out, the lawn neat and tended.
His main studio is in Walthamstow, east London. The Sussex studio, built from concrete blocks faced with local flint, is used chiefly for sculpture and drawing ‘and as an escape’. The interior is functional, whitewashed, with bare wood, a concrete floor and a satisfying curved wall at one end. The skylights usually favoured by artists are absent: planners would not permit them. Instead he relies on six overhead electric bulbs and a glazed wall onto the garden. ‘It’s always seemed to provide light enough,’ Perry says, with a shrug. ‘It’s the cold that’s more of a problem, but that comes with the job.’
When he and his wife, the writer Philippa Perry, bought the house in 1998 it was almost derelict and required extensive rebuilding. ‘So that took quite a time. I always hoped to have a proper studio once we had the money.’ Having met local architect Jonathan Stickland, who had worked on a neighbour’s house and knew what was permissible in this National Trust conservation area, Perry had it built five years ago.
The solution, within a relatively confined garden plot, is ingenious. The driveway to the cottage originally sloped up to a double garage. Now, after much labour and digging and removal of earth, it runs down to Perry’s studio. ‘It had to be dug out so the roof wouldn’t show. So it was ‘dropped’ into this hole. It’s quite brutalist in style but I like that. It works. I quite wanted it to be like a castle. In fact at first I fancied a Martello tower but could see that wasn’t too practical with all those round walls and nowhere to put anything.’
The biggest challenge was getting in the kiln, his chief piece of equipment, and making sure it had enough electrical power to work. It stands in the corner like a vast white refrigerator, though its purpose is the opposite. Its flintstone chimney, like a small belfry, adds a striking feature to the building’s handsome but plain exterior. ‘I fantasise that it could be an old blacksmith’s shop, though of course it’s all brand new.’
Fantasy is both ruling planet and lodestar of Grayson Perry’s art. Since childhood he has had an obsession with creating other worlds, which have continued to nourish his entire existence. He grew up in Chelmsford, Essex, the oldest of four children in a family he describes, frankly, as ‘dysfunctional’. His teddy-bear hero Alan Measles features repeatedly in his work, providing a rich vein of humour, as well as tenderness.
Now Alan has his own website and twitter account where he introduces himself as ‘a 50-year-old teddy bear, dictator and God of the imaginary world of artist Grayson Perry’.
A brown ceramic bear, definitely Alan, dominates one corner of the studio. ‘I wasn’t entirely happy with this. Then his chin fell off. So I’m keeping it and I have made another.’
The other version of this incarnation of Alan Measles will feature in Perry’s forthcoming show at the British Museum, ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’, in which he is artist and curator, combining his own work with objects from the BM’s collection. In collaboration with the museum he has made casts of various items, from fragments of Assyrian relief to a Roman gravestone, to a German First World War medal.
Many of these will form part of his main contribution to the show: a six-and-a-half foot-long tomb in the shape of a ship, which has been cast in iron, a floating reliquary that is forever earthbound. This, he says, is the tomb of the unknown craftsman, dedicated to the many thousands of artists over the centuries whose work survives but whose names will never be known. On the table in the middle of his studio, alongside the glue, hairspray, kitchen spatula, potter’s knife, radio, reference books and other debris, is a small ceramic model of the ship, exquisitely decorated with pilgrims’ shells, bottles, figureheads and other objects. White vinegar has been used to assist the ‘rusting’ process. Grayson Perry, as ever and in exhaustive and loving detail, has created another world in miniature, rooted in history, salted with ancient tales and memories.
But there’s another surprise: also in the studio and destined for the British Museum, stands Alan Measles’s elongated motorbike, a delirious riot of pink mudguards, red details and blue wheels, complete with a painted flower which whirls when the vehicle is in motion. The bike is named Patience, and its huge leather saddle is cheekily labelled Chastity. Perry has launched an X Factor-style teddy bear competition which will run as part of the BM’s show. X-Factor? Teddy bears? At the British Museum? The world is spinning, and Grayson Perry is at the wheel.
Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman British Museum, London, 020 7323 8299, www.britishmuseum.org , 6 Oct–19 Feb, 2012. Supported by Alix Partners with Louis Vuitton.