When I first came across Grayson Perry I have to say I was distinctly underwhelmed, I think because it all seemed to be about him and not about the art. As I result I ignored him for a while but slowly as I started to come across him more, listen to what he was saying and look at his art my mind was totally changed. In fact I now think that he is not only one of Britain’s best contemporary artists but he is also one of the best commentators on art, he has an engaging quizzical style that enables him to get across concepts and ideas in a very accessible style. This perhaps culminated in his Bafta award winning documentary series All in the Best Possible Taste in which Grayson visited Sunderland, Tunbridge Wells and the Cotsworlds and created tapestries depicting a story inspired by art history and the different social groups, classes and tastes that he came across during the visit to the very different regions of England.
Since seeing the documentary I’ve always wanted to see the tapestries so was very excited when I heard that they were coming to Leeds and would be installed for a period in Temple Newsam House. It’s worth mentioning the curation of the exhibition as I think it was a very clever idea to place the tapestries within a stately home as opposed to an art gallery. The tapestries themselves primarily deal with issues of taste and class and are full of artefacts that reflect this. Seeing them hanging on the walls (each one in a different room) of the South Wing surrounded by the changing styles and taste of previous centuries gave them a suitable backdrop that could not be recreated in any art gallery.
The tapestries tell the story of Tim Rakewell and his rise from impoverished working class Sunderland to nouveau riche stately home owner after Tim’s success as an app developer and his sale of his company to Richard Branson and finally his death after crashing his Ferrari showing off to his new trophy wife. The Story is “The Geek’s Progress” – a headline that appears on the ipad on tapestry 4 and is a nod to William Hogarth’s “A Rakes Progess” which tells the story of Tom Rakewell and his descent from inherited riches to madness, destitution and death. Grayson’s modern take on Hogarth’s work is brought into focus in the exhibition which enables you to compare the two bodies of work as all 8 of Hogarth’s pictures are reproduced in the room that houses Grayson’s final tapestry.
Whilst I’d seen pictures of the tapestries and seen the documentary on the inspiration behind them nothing can prepare you for the stunning colours, vividness and detail of seeing them in them up close. There is so much detail that personally I could look at each one for a considerable period of time, they hold your eye as you take in all that is going on and in looking at them for a prolonged period my brain was totally engaged in thinking about Tim’s progress and what this tells us about Britain today and who we are.
(The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal)
Artefacts play out strongly across the tapestries, and this again links through to where they exhibited as you pass through rooms full of artefacts of the period before you get to the tapestries. From the miners lamp, to the cafetiere, the football shirt to the Cath Kidston bag so many assumptions are made on the clothes and artefacts we wear and surround ourselves with. Technology and how it has changed is also strongly reflected throughout the journey, from the very first tapestry where the baby Tim reaches out his mother’s mobile phone screen, the huge cranes of the declining shipyards to be replaced by call centres, the tablet computers and app development that brought Tim his fortune.
(The Upper Class at Bay, Or An Endangered Species Brought Down)
In comparison to A Rake’s Progress which dealt with someone’s descent from riches to rags, The Geek’s Progress charts the successful rise from impoverished background to stately home. As Britain becomes more and more unequal and social mobility less and less achievable Perry is I think asking important questions on what sort of society we want. On one of the tapestries Jamie Oliver is depicted as the god of social mobility looking down as Tim moves across to the middle classes, however Tim as Grayson did attended a Grammar School and I wonder if Grayson is making comment here that this is now one of the only ways to achieve social mobility. In the end though both Tim and Tom lie naked and dead each destroyed by their wealth.
Across these six tapestries Grayson Perry weaves an extraordinary exploration of British social history over the last thirty years encompassing politics, class, taste, social observation, art history, celebrity culture, changing industry, technology and social media.
It does all of this is a very accessible format, my kids came with me and both said how much they’d enjoyed it partly because they could follow and understand it. The accompanying booklet is really excellent, there is an app that you can also download and this is available on tablets in the exhibition so that you can explore the tapestries in more detail and look up many of the other historical pieces of art from the 15th century that inspired the work.
The exhibition is on till December 7, I’ll definitely be going again.