Art and Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry talks to Pat Parker about his traumatic childhood in Chelmsford, his art, his transvestism and his extraordinary new exhibition at the British Museum

CHELMSFORD artist Grayson Perry has dressed as himself, rather than as his flamboyant alter-ego, Claire, for the launch of his stunning new exhibition at the British Museum, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. He is down-to-earth, unpretentious, funny and articulate – a refreshing combination in a top celebrity artist. He has been in the public eye ever since receiving the Turner Prize in 2003 dressed as Claire in a purple silk little-girl’s dress, jokingly commenting, ‘Well, it’s about time a transvestite potter won the Turner Prize!’His pots, beautiful in form, sometimes shocking in content, are sought-after by top art galleries worldwide. While in the past they have sometimes depicted images of violence and child abuse, they increasingly comment incisively on consumerism, class, media, politics and the art world. Grayson is also experimenting with other media, such as prints and tapestries.The new exhibition at the British Museum is perhaps his most ambitious and daring to date. He has spent two and a half years trawling through the museum’s eight million artefacts to select 190 eclectic objects ranging from the bizarre to the sacred, the mundane to the macabre. They include shrines and icons, an ancient gold earring with an ear still attached and a plastic 1980s badge proudly proclaiming ‘Chelmsford – County Town of Essex’. He has juxtaposed them with around 30 of his own works, including ceramics and a sumptuous tapestry entitled Map of Truth and Beliefs, which explores modern day religious and secular pilgrimage sites, from Graceland to Ground Zero. At the heart of the exhibition stands Grayson’s Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman – a cast-iron coffin ship festooned with casts of museum artefacts, containing a 250,000-year-old flint axe, ‘the tool which begat all tools,’ symbolising the dawn of human creativity.‘This is basically a short tour through my head,’ he tells assembled journalists. ‘I’m here with all my eccentricities and all my obsessions, and I’m a bit mad!’But it’s a very sane type of madness, as I discover when Grayson gives me an exclusive interview prior to the launch. One of the dominant themes of the exhibition is the special power conferred on objects by religion, superstition or magic. The first section is devoted (in every sense of the word) to Grayson’s teddy, Alan Measles, whom he describes as ‘a living god’ and ‘benign dictator’ of his imaginary world. Grayson’s elevation of his teddy bear to the status of a divinity is only partly tongue-in-cheek. ‘It started as a joke, but I think if we think what God is, it’s something on which we project our human qualities. And that is what a child does to a teddy bear. So under the guise of a joke, I’m making a serious point, which is that other gods are no more real than my teddy bear.’Not that he’s mocking religion; far from it. ‘I don’t believe in God, but I like religion. I think it’s good as a communal activity; it focuses people on things other than shopping. Perhaps we have too cynical a view of religion in this country.’Outside the exhibition is Grayson’s resplendently pink, custom-made motorbike-cum-shrine to Alan Measles. He and Alan set off from Chelmsford last year to its twin town, Backnang, in a ‘Royal Progress’ recorded for posterity by Radio 4. In the exhibition, however, Alan has been replaced by a stunt double. ‘He’s so precious to me I don’t even trust the British Museum with him.’

‘I used to work a 24-hour week for my stepfather on top of my school work and four hours a day commuting. It wasn’t good for my academic performance. I used to fall asleep in lessons’

Grayson’s early childhood is the key to understanding Alan’s godlike status in his imagination. He was born in Chelmsford in 1960, and lived with his parents and younger sister in a council house near Oaklands Park. All was well until his father left home when Grayson was five, after his mother started an affair with the milkman. The milkman moved in and the violence started soon after. Grayson retreated to his bedroom, where Alan Measles became a kind of surrogate father, embodying positive male qualities lacking in his everyday life.As he grew older, the games involved dressing up in his sister’s clothing. By the time he was 15, he was walking around Chelmsford cemetery dressed as a woman, having changed in public toilets. I tell him this sounds incredibly sad. ‘It seemed incredibly exciting at the time. It was just something I did. That’s the sort of sordid thing you get up to when you’re a perv!’ he replies, self-mockingly. However, Grayson never doubted his heterosexuality. Despite the turbulence at home (the family were now living in Bicknacre), Grayson was a bright child and won a place at King Edward VI Grammar School (KEGS) in Chelmsford. He came top in his second year, but as the problems at home increased, his academic performance deteriorated.The family were by now planning to move into a caravan in Great Bardfield, while his stepfather built a new house. Grayson had recently contacted his real father, now remarried, whom he had not seen since he was seven. When he mentioned this to his mother, she threw him out. He moved into his father’s cramped council house, sharing a room with the lodger.When his father’s wife found out about his transvestism, however, he was thrown out again. Grayson rejoined the family in Great Bardfield, where his stepfather was now a newsagent. He had to get up at 5.30am to do a paper round, before travelling two hours to school. ‘I used to work a 24-hour week on top of my school work and four hours a day commuting. It wasn’t good for my academic performance. I used to fall asleep in lessons.’Nevertheless, he passed nine O Levels. While at KEGS, he was a keen Cadet, and considered military training at Sandhurst until his art teacher one day suggested he might like to go to art college.‘That was a turning point. Up until then, I’d just lived on rails, without really thinking. Just at that moment, I thought, “Why can’t I do something I really like?” Suddenly, I had identity, direction and ambition.’He did an art foundation course at Braintree College, before studying for a degree at Portsmouth Polytechnic. His behaviour became more flamboyant and he started openly dressing as a woman. He became estranged from his outraged mother and stepfather, who did not attend his degree show. He has not seen either of them since 1990.I ask if his feelings about his hometown have been indelibly tainted by the unhappiness of his childhood? ‘I’ve got over most of the hard things, and now I just see Chelmsford for what it is, really, which is messed about. It seemed like a different place back then, quainter, somehow. I’ve still got a few relations in the town and I go back every so often. My father and auntie still live there.’

‘I’ve built the electrodes; hopefully they will provide the sparks’

He thinks Essex is an unfairly maligned county. ‘The cliches do exist, especially in the south of the county, but the north is a very different place – very beautiful, with lots of nice villages and rolling countryside. And the coast is very interesting.’Grayson met his psychotherapist wife, Philippa, at evening classes and was attracted by the fact she made him laugh. Their daughter, Florence, is studying chemistry at university. She is completely relaxed about his transvestism.He is well aware that he may be criticised for narcissism in raiding the treasures of the British Museum to construct an exhibition largely centred on his own preoccupations. The first pot you see when you enter is entitled You Are Here, and contains cartoons of visitors to the exhibition explaining in speech bubbles why they have come, such as, ‘I need to have my negative prejudices confirmed,’ or ‘I just want to satisfy myself that I am more clever than this celebrity charlatan’. As he says: ‘I just wanted to get my revenge in first about the prejudices and assumptions people might make about me as an artist.’He needn’t worry. The exhibition has had overwhelmingly positive reviews and gives us the chance to view obscure, long-forgotten objects in a new light. Grayson warns that the ‘pilgrims’ to his exhibition should not come in search of meaning. So what does he hope they will take from it?‘I want them to make connections in their head,’ he tells me. ‘I want them to come away feeling they have had some interesting thoughts. I’ve built the electrodes; hopefully they will provide the sparks.’

Find out moreGrayson Perry’s exhibition, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, runs at the British Museum until February 19, 2012. Admission is �10. Grayson’s autobiography, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, by Wendy Jones, is published by Chatto and Windus.

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