In the last few years, Grayson Perry has become an increasingly familiar figure, not just for his art but for his television series. As a cross dressing man who uses traditional crafts such as ceramics and tapestry making to explore ideas about modern day society and as a charismatic presenter and orator, he has an ambiguous and playful personae.
His 2012 work The Vanity of Small Differences is currently on display at Temple Newsam House in Leeds. It is a collection of six vivid and intricate tapestries telling the bittersweet life story of a character called Tim Rakewell as he climbs the class ladder of modern day Britain. Through this visual narrative , Perry confronts notions of taste, class and consumption.
The images have the feel of street art to an extent but they also seem more indebted to independent comic books. There is however the paradox that they are presented via a very traditional medium which, in the past, was often used to convey the status and tell the stories of the famous and powerful. After all, one of the most significant events in British history, the battle of Hastings, is preserved on the Bayeux Tapestry. There is an inherent humour and humanity in using the medium to tell the tale of someone who might be considered unimportant. The setting of Temple Newsam House is ideal in this respect. Stately homes reinvented themselves in the 20th century as places where the working and middle classes come to see how old money lives. It’s as much a form of class tourism as that famously satirized by Pulp in Common People.
The composition of the imagery in the tapestries is very dramatic and eye catching. Each one contains a huge amount of detail. There is a strong element of the grotesque throughout. The working class world of The Adoration of the Cage Fighters is a bleak variation on the Virgin birth with a mother indifferent to her son. The cultured, middle class party seen in The Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close is a cheery nightmare of politeness. In the first and final tapestries, mobile phones distract people from the real meaning of their lives . None of these worlds feel like one I would want to stay in given the choice.
Perry draws on classical works of art to create the feeling of a morality tale, albeit one whose meaning is open to interpretation Tim’s progression through life is as much reflected in what he consumes as where he is. For all three classes he moves through there are objects that serve as totems of acceptance and role: football strips, art books and hunting dogs. Perry makes us ask ourselves how much our passions come from who we want to be.
It surprised me how emotive I found some of the individual details. Seen as a whole, each tapestry is almost overwhelming and yet there are scenes of real pathos. A child reaching for the phone that has his mother’s full attention is heart breaking and stayed with me for a long time afterwards. The shell shocked, blood splattered woman in Lamentation elevates the story to matters of life and random death compared to which the symbols of class are ultimately meaningless. Of all six tapestries, the first and last touched me the most. Only the second, The Agony in the Car Park, left me underwhelmed. Somehow I couldn’t connect with Tim’s club singer stepfather.
The Vanity of Small Differences is not always easy an easy work to look at. Nor I think is it meant to be. But it is a visceral and thought provoking show and Temple Newsam House turns out to be the perfect place for it. The very act of going to a stately home to see a series of tapestries woven by a Turner Prize winning artist feels resonant with Perry’s themes.
Temple Newsam House (detail)