The Critic Interview: Grayson Perry

Richard Brooks accompanies the Turner Prize-winning artist around his new show and explores his troubled pre-therapy youth

Artillery Row The Interview

I was half expecting that when I met Grayson Perry in Bath, he would be wearing early nineteenth-century clothes in Jane Austen mode. After all, this is the city where she lived for several years. And, as Claire, the potter’s transvestite self, Perry does usually dress for the occasion. Instead, he is in a rather drab black and grey twin-set, which looks like vintage M&S. Why? “Well, it’s reminiscent of the 1980s because that’s the period where much of my work for this exhibition comes from,” he explains.   

Self portrait cracked and warped, 1985, Private Collection, © Grayson Perry Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro

“The Pre-Therapy Years”, now at Bath’s Holburne Museum, stemmed from an idea Perry had of looking back at his art — pots, plates and a few sculptures — between graduating from Portsmouth Polytechnic in 1982 and starting therapy in the late 1990s.

“I would never have done paedophilia, though I have done depictions of being dressed as a baby.”

“The problem was I really didn’t know where most of the stuff I had done in that period was,” he tells me as, together, we begin our tour around the exhibition. “Most I had not seen since being sold or just lost 30 years ago. And I kept scant records. So we did a call-out via social media.” He also went on BBC1’s The One Show in 2018, which brought in some finds. 

I have always found Perry a rare delight among artists, having first encountered him when he won the Turner Prize in 2003, beating, against the odds, the Chapman Brothers, Jake and Dinos. He is both good fun, and, as we journalists say, “good copy” since he knows how and when to make statements which can be headline news. He is also extremely insightful. 

His wife, Phillipa, a psychotherapist herself, whom he married in 1992 and who, of course, knew he was a transvestite soon after they met, persuaded him to go into therapy. “She told me all the phrases and words from therapy in advance, so I was clued up before I began.”

Artefact for the People, 1990s

We continue wandering around the show. “The person who did this work was raw, angry and very fucked up,” he explains. “Also obsessed by kinky sex. I was young and very priapic.” He laughs out loud, with his trademark cackle. “I was fascinated by fetishes. Yet I would not call my work porn even though there are vaginas and penises. I can’t imagine, for example, anyone wanting to masturbate in front of one of my pots.”

But does Perry think there are any areas of sex where he would — even in those early years — not have gone? “I would never have done paedophilia, though I have done depictions of being dressed as a baby.”

He was born in 1960 in Essex. His father left the family home when his son was four after he discovered his wife was having an affair. Perry admits to sexual fantasies from a very young age, and even tied himself up by his pyjama cord when only seven. “My babysitter found me with this noose around my neck. I can remember too getting excited, when about nine, wearing a rubber smock for pottery. It was being a fetishist though of course I had no idea what that was then. Adults do not realise that kids have a sexual life.” And then came the women’s clothes, which began when he “borrowed” his sister’s dresses. 

Perry did not shine at school, probably due to parental problems. In his young teens, he went to live with his father as he was not getting on with his mother’s new husband, a milkman. But he was then thrown out by his dad for cross-dressing, returning to his mother’s house.  At 16, he even seriously considered joining the Army, but decided to carry on at school before, at 18, beginning an art foundation course. Then came three years at Portsmouth Polytechnic, during which his first pottery piece was shown at the then influential ICA in central London. 

Essex Plate, 1985, Private Collection © Grayson Perry Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro

After Portsmouth, he lived in a squat in Camden Town, north London where, almost for lack of anything else to do, he began evening classes, encouraged by the sister of his then girlfriend, herself an artist.

“When I first went there I thought I’d do sculptures, but I was drawn to pottery. Ceramics turned out to be my toolbox. But I was going through such an angry phase then and behaving pretty violently that people tried to get me chucked out of the class. When I began my pottery, the work was full of this very weird stuff.” This included girls who had limbs malformed by thalidomide, handicapped fascists, and images of the mass murderer Dennis Nilsen. “One of my earliest works from evening class was a plate, decorated with a Christ-like figure, ejaculating.” He points to it at the Holburne. “But the Vice Squad were never going to come along and stop me. Pottery? No. They would have done it if these were photos, however.”

Perry describes himself in that period as “schizoid”. Not in the medical sense, though he was deeply troubled. “Schizoid in the sense that I had become in London an urban punk, and yet there was also the heritage — the Essex side of me. I suppose then I was rural punk.”

His first exhibition was held in London in  1984. “The most expensive pot I sold went for £85.” He had some surprising buyers then, including a Jewish man who bought a pot with a swastika on it. 

By the mid-1980s, Perry’s cross-dressing had become more public. One pot at the Holburne, from 1987, is called “Secret Woman”. It depicts an angel-like figure with an erect penis beside Claire, in a dress and, with a halo above her head, patting the angel on the shoulder. “This pot was about my acknowledgement of Claire as a central plank of my creative drive,” he explains. 

Claire is usually described in newspaper articles or interviews as Perry’s alter ego. I have never heard him object to that term, but he does now. “Claire is not my alter ego. She is a man in a dress doing things a man does.” And, for the record, Perry never makes his pots or plates dressed as Claire. “That would be far too messy.” His deep cackle reverberates around the gallery. 

Claire as a Soldier, 1987

There are other women in his art from the 1980s and early 1990s in the Holburne show — a bizarre chair-like sculpture, “Saint Diana”, for example. “I was both fascinated and repulsed by the cult of Diana in the years following her marriage to Charles.” He then steers me over to a glazed plate, called “Newsreader”, from 1990, showing the head of an auburn-haired female news anchor. “I was fantasising then about Sue Lawley and Jan Leeming. They were a fetish of mine. As a transvestite I was constantly seeking role models to emulate. Female TV newscasters represented an aspirational form of femininity for me. They were groomed, mature and in command.”

Though he no longer lived in Essex in his twenties, the county has remained important to Perry, and the exhibition includes several, almost romanticised plates, depicting the area. “This was a time before Essex Man or Essex Girl, and a long time before the TV programme The Only Way Is Essex. It was then an anonymous, nowhere space — like a garage forecourt to London itself. I’ve still got this emotional link to it. And, after all, it is where I first wandered around in my sister’s dresses.”

His love of motorbikes also came from his childhood county. His father used to park his outside the family home. “But when he finally moved out, he left it behind. So I think the bike is a surrogate for my father. I’ve spent more money on buying motorbikes than anything else in my life.” (I still retain an image of Perry from a decade or so ago, when I saw him riding his bike through the streets of north London, with his teddy bear, Alan Measles, sitting behind him.)

These days, he says, he is “part of the establishment”. He gave the BBC Reith Lectures in 2013, and is chancellor of the University of the Arts London, a group of six art colleges, including Chelsea and St Martin’s. He teaches fashion for a few weeks a year at St Martin’s and buys quite a few of his dresses from the students, who design them for Claire. 

He has also been a trustee of the British Museum since 2015. In 2011, he curated the exhibition “Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman”, when he was given a free hand in the museum’s huge storerooms to find objects not usually on display. In 2018 as a Royal Academician, he was in charge of its Summer Exhibition, choosing the works submitted and  deciding on their display. “That was the favourite thing I’ve ever done. I enjoyed the collegiate aspect of it, and found it very interesting to find out what people are creating. But there were too many abstract landscapes submitted.” I decided against telling Perry that I paint abstract landscapes as a hobby, and put in a couple for that year’s Summer Exhibition. Now I know why they were rejected. 

Armageddon Feels so Very Re-assuring, 1988, Collection of the artist, © Grayson Perry Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro

Despite being one of the most recognisable living British artists (probably only David Hockney beats him), fame came pretty late. He will turn 60 at the end of March. It was not until he won the Turner that he became known to a wider public. “That made me famous. I was just finishing my therapy then too, and was stopping looking at the world through that cloudy lens of mixed-up emotions.”

Despite being one of the most recognisable living British artists (probably only David Hockney beats him), fame came pretty late.

Being a transvestite was in itself no impediment in the art world, which has long been used to oddballs. “Actually, they found it harder to accept a potter than a transvestite.” He thinks being a ceramicist was seen as “feminine and decorative” by many. 

He is also recognised more because he is regularly on television, having made half a dozen documentary series for Channel 4. “Being on TV is good for spreading the word.” Some of the documentaries were on art, but he has also taken on a far wider brief, like the series he did on masculinity where he tried to find out why men often feel they have to fit in with gender stereotypes.

Last autumn he was in the United States for several weeks, making a series to go out on C4 in the early summer. I ask if it will be different from Ed Balls’s Travels in Trumpland, which was on BBC2 in 2018. He pauses. “Well, mine’s timed for the US primaries this year. That’s all I’m allowed to say at this stage.”

Meaningless Symbols, 1993 Glazed ceramic, Collection of Mark & Debra Eden © Grayson Perry Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro

Perry is a longtime Labour Party supporter and has helped to fundraise. “I’ve always voted for them. I supported Corbyn and, yes, I voted for Labour again in the December election.”

Despite being a TV regular, Perry is adamant that art is and will continue to be his main job. He takes his time over his pots, doing perhaps half a dozen a year. Other artists, like Damien Hirst, have a huge entourage for “their” work. But Perry says, “It’s all my own work. There is no Team Perry.”

While he has never made the massive sums which turned Hirst into a multi-millionaire well before he was 50, Perry’s work now sells for very decent sums. “My top auction price has been £620,000.” But money has never been his driving force. “It was not until 1998 before I was earning what you might call a living wage from my art.”  

Therapy completely changed Perry. “It made me clearer in my thinking, and forced me to move away from myself and all the sex and weird stuff I was doing. It made me think about and do more social and political things in my life and work. Having therapy was the best money I ever spent.”

The Pre-Therapy Years” is at the Holburne Museum, Bath, until 25 May before moving to the York City Art Gallery (12 June-20 September) and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, Norwich (18 October-31 January 2021). There is an accompanying book, published by Thames & Hudson.

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