Potter Grayson Perry learnt a lot about pigeonholing the nation's tastes while making his series for Channel 4
It’s not easy talking to Grayson Perry. The Turner Prize-winning artist is very open, articulate, easy‑going… I would even say matey. When something amuses him, he doesn’t hold back. He laughs like a taxi driver. For what it’s worth, the cross-dressing potter is not dressed as a little girl today, and we’re meeting in the small and very cluttered front room of his house in Clerkenwell, about five minutes from where I live. But the trouble is, he keeps saying things that sound like the first lines of a challenging Oxbridge examination. “One is marinated in the material culture of one’s upbringing and that’s what forms one’s taste.” Or: “Emotional structures take a lot longer to change than economical, intellectual ones, I think.” Both of these aperçus are delivered in the first two minutes of our interview and already I’m struggling to keep up.
I’m talking to him about the three-part television series he has created for Channel 4, All in the Best Possible Taste, which started with the working classes last week. Actually, that’s only the excuse. I’m really talking to him because I love his work, thought his last exhibition at the British Museum, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, a brilliant and exhilarating experience, and because, frankly, it’s not often you get a chance to meet an artist of his stature.
His programme looks at taste – “why people buy the things they do, wear the things they wear and what they are trying to say about themselves when they make these choices”. Perry’s investigation is divided into three separate classes – working, middle and upper – and he travels to Sunderland, Tunbridge Wells and the Cotswolds. It is strange, though, that the series doesn’t touch on ethnicity or regionality or age, for that matter.
Perry himself admits that the divide was a touch arbitrary – after all, as he says, “most people now call themselves middle class”, and the upper classes, who get a whole hour to themselves, represent only a tiny percentage of the population.
Moreover, as the series develops you begin to see that the class structure isn’t going to work anyway. Perry discovers what he calls “a Berlin Wall of British taste” between the absurdly middle-class estate of King’s Hill (where it’s all shiny new Range Rovers and Jamie at Homecookware parties) and the old town of Tunbridge Wells itself, just 10 miles away, where the taste is more upper-middle (William Morris wallpaper, shelves lined with books, and “retro vintage” finds). It is there, he says, that he discovers that “the important taste divide in British life is not between working-class and middle-class taste but within the different tribes of the middle class itself”.
More pertinently, by the end, we see the forces of social mobility at work, making nonsense of class divisions. A titled family live in what looks suspiciously like a council house because it’s easier to maintain than their ancestral pile, while an actress from The Bill worries what the locals will think while she tears into the stately home she has bought. “The Aga’s got to go!” we hear her cry, the words sounding like a death knell for a certain way of life.
You would have thought Grayson’s own class would permeate the series, but even that is elusive. “I’m working class myself,” he says in episode one. “I’m middle class myself,” he says in episode two, “a fully paid-up member of the chattering classes.” And by episode three? “I’m an oik usurper.”
Which is true, I ask him. “All three!” he snaps.
The truth is that he was born in 1960 in Chelmsford, Essex. His father left home after his mother began an affair with the milkman, who moved into the house and bullied Perry – an event much covered in his work.
He studied fine art at Portsmouth Polytechnic and moved to London in the Eighties, where he lived for a time in a squat and went to pottery classes in the evening. He has said that he was attracted to clay because it was held in such low esteem by the art world. He is almost certainly the country’s most famous transvestite, regularly appearing as his alter-ego of Claire, whom he has described as “an Essex housewife uptown to do some shopping”. There was a time when you could buy his pots for the equivalent of a week’s dole – which is exactly how he saw it. Now they’ll set you back around £50,000.
For all my initial doubts, the series is compelling, and I rather wish that Channel 4 had commissioned more than three hours. Perry is always insightful and his scattergun approach becomes endearing. “Do you cry a more vintage kind of tears at Glyndebourne?” he asks, watching a performance at a working-men’s club in Sunderland. The upper classes, he tells us, “have their taste dictated to by ancestors beyond the grave”. And I love his description of Jamie Oliver: “the god of class mobility.” Best of all, Perry has an openness, a neutrality.
Although he is discussing taste, he never sneers, he never judges. “I can do cynicism for England,” he tells me. “But I reined it in. I thought it would be more interesting not to be cynical. Everyone wants to feel they’ve got better taste than someone else.”
Over the three hours of the series, a narrative develops because – and this is the crux of the matter – Grayson Perry is also constructing six epic tapestries based on his observations, and we actually see him weaving together all the different strands – in every sense – as he first sketches and then creates the work in a hi-tech facility in Belgium. Based on Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, Perry charts the journey of Tim – as opposed to Tom – Rakewell through 21st‑century England.
“I’m amazingly chaotic and instinctive about the way I do things,” he says, and in fact, for logistical reasons, the series was actually shot back-to-front. “I post-rationalise wildly. Often, when I look at a piece of my work, I can see the fumblings at the beginning and the more crystallised theory and narrative towards the end, and that’s how they usually happen. I enjoy the fact that the struggle is there. I don’t plan what I do completely. I just go for it. I just start and hope it will work.”
The tapestries are now on display – and for sale – at the Victoria Miro gallery in Islington and I went to see them. I was struck immediately by their vibrancy, their intense colour. At first, it’s hard to believe that they’ve actually been woven as opposed to painted, and yet it is the interlocking threads that give the images their richness and texture. The detail is astonishing – from the “Smoking Kills” warning on the cigarette pack (working class) to The Guardian front page (middle class) to the credit cards spilling out of a wallet (upper class). Religious iconography permeates the compositions, and as you travel across the three classes, you cannot escape an overwhelming sense of tristesse. “All that money and he dies in the gutter” runs the commentary for the last image, where Tim Rakewell wraps his Ferrari around a lamp post. At the end of the day, it is the artist’s eye rather than the commentator’s shtick that most impresses.
Grayson Perry has already made a huge impact on the public consciousness, with a status that is probably approaching that of national treasure. I wonder if he actually needs to be a television celebrity. That last word makes him bridle but he explains: “If I have a show and I get an audience of about 100,000 people, I’m doing really well as an artist. But if you make a television programme and you have 100,000 people, you’re out of a job. As an artist, I’m in the business of expressing myself and communicating things I’m interested in. I enjoy participating in the national conversation. But I can understand how easy it is to get sucked into making things to feed the beast that you’ve created, so I shall be wary of that and I shall only make programmes that I want to make.”
Another arena that Perry doesn’t explore in the series is artistic taste – it amuses him to reflect that in the art world, “tasteful” is probably a bigger insult than “tasteless”.
“Because it implies that you’re cowardly. I would encourage tastefulness because I’m bored of looking at radical chic. That is actually quite ugly on the whole. Art has forgotten how to do beautiful a lot of the time.”
He pops out to the loo (or should that be toilet?) and, on his return, starts again. “I wanted the programme to be non-judgmental because I didn’t want my taste to dominate. It’s not about what is good and bad. And if one message comes out of the whole series, it’s that good taste is that which does not offend our peers, our group.”
And there you have it. Two thousand words, please. Begin now. Write on one side of the page only.