GRAYSON PERRY DOES BREXIT
Britain’s most famous transvestite potter has travelled the country discovering what unites Brexiteers and Remainers – teapots, Marmite and Bowie – and what divides us. And he has turned his findings into art. Mick Brown meets a grand provocateur turned national treasure. Portrait by Richard Ansett
The one thing ever yone knows about Grayson Perr y – potter, Reith lecturer, Turner Prize- and Bafta-winner and television cultural anthropologist – is that he is a man who is fond of wearing a dress. And the one thing everyone wants to know after I have interviewed him is: was he wearing one?
Of course, he wasn’t. Nowadays Perr y’s famous alter ego, Claire, tends only to come out for special occasions. And this morning she has remained firmly in the closet.
Perry’s studio is on a quiet residential street in an expensive par t of nor th London, behind a high brick wall, through a g reen wooden gate – a 10-minute cycle ride from where he lives with his wife Philippa.
He is lounging on a sofa which is covered with a sample of a tapestry he did for his British Museum show in 2011, The Map
of Truths and Beliefs. He is eating a banana. He has a large, bony face, prominent teeth, and an unruly thatch of straw-coloured hair. He is wearing a blue T-shirt; a white, bony knee poking through a tear in his bagg y, paintspattered blue trousers. His voice is estuary blokeish, and his manner utterly candid – a man, you sense, who would confess to a crime before he’d been accused of it. But who also knows when to stop. Within 20 minutes of sitting down with him (and I’m still not quite sure how we got on to the subject) I find myself asking about whether he was wearing a dress when he enjoyed his earliest sexual experience. He feigns horror – ‘I’m not going into the detail of my sexual history for the Daily Tel
egraph!’ – then roars with laughter. A truly fantastic laugh: a dirty, gravelly cackle that puts you in mind of nothing so much as the Carry On actor Sid James at the moment when Barbara Windsor becomes unharnessed from her cantilevered bra.
What a sing ular and interesting person Perry is. He has a new exhibition opening next week, at the Serpentine, entitled
The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!. ‘A provocation to some extent,’ he admits – actually more a piece of tongue-in-cheek, barefaced affrontery.
But one that contains a germ of truth. If not Britain’s most popular liv ing ar t ist – t hat accolade surely st ill belongs to David Hockney – then Grayson Perry is certainly one of the best known. When, in 2014, he received his CBE from the Prince of Wales dressed in what he described as his ‘Italian mother-of-the-bride outfit’, it was an epochal moment; not simply because it was the first time that a transvestite potter had received a CBE, not even because, as the newspapers repor ted, t he t wo men were ‘quickly chatting like old friends’, but because it marked Perry’s elevation to the rank of national treasure – the provocateur turned popular hero.
His new exhibition includes si x pieces f rom Perr y’s telev ision series All Man, an exploration of modern masculinity in which Per r y ta l ke d to c ag e fighters, gang members and city traders, as well as a variety of new ceramics and tapestries on the theme of contemporary Britain and Brexit. At the same time, Channel 4 will be broadcasting a new documentary, Grayson Perry: Divided Britain – a tour d’horizon of the country a year on from the EU referendum, in which Perry visits the most pro-brexit and pro-remain parts of Britain.
More than a ceramicist and an artist, in recent times Perry has emerged as a br illia nt ly ef fect ive documentarian; a n astute observer of social mores, culture, class and taste – of the things that make us who we are. And, more specifically, make Grayson Perry who he is.
He received his CBE from the Prince of Wales dressed in his ‘Italian motherof-the-bride outfit’
Perry, who is 57, grew up in Essex, the son of an engineer. When Perry was four, his mother had an affair with the milkman – life imitating cliché – and then married him. His stepfather was an amateur wrestler, who brought his violence home and showed little affection for Perry or his younger sister, Helen. He once destroyed a suitcase full of photographs of Perry, his mother and his sister.
Per r y escaped into a fa nt asy life, build ing model aeroplanes, drawing and playing with a teddy bear he called Alan Measles, which he would later describe as a ‘surrogate father figure’ and would become a recurring motif in his work. (Alan Measles remains Perry’s Twitter handle.)
He was 12 when he first put on one of his sister’s dresses. ‘It’s very sexy, isn’t it?’ he smiles. ‘It’s a fetish. I enjoyed it.’
At the age of 15, he moved in with his father’s new family in Chelmsford. At weekends he’d leave home with a frock in his bag, change in a public loo and drift around the local cemetery – a secret life that ended when his stepsister read his diary, and he was thrown out. Back at home, his mother insisted on consulting a doctor about his transvestism. ‘He didn’t have a clue; he just thought I was gay.’
When he left school for a place at Portsmouth Poly, to study fine ar t, his stepfather told him not to come back.
Reflecting now, Perr y can see that his stepfather’s emotional and physical violence were the products of his own dysfunctional background – ‘probably much worse than I experienced’. Perry has not spoken to him for 30 years. Does he know where he lives? He laughs. ‘Roughly…’ And his father? They talk ‘occasionally’, he says, before amending that to ‘annually’. Pause. ‘When I happen to be in the area...’
He pauses. ‘It’s tricky. A point came when I was quite young, where I felt I was the parent… and then you kind of ask, “What’s in this for me?”’
His mot her d ied la st yea r. ‘And I was quite shocked by how unsad I was in some ways. I just thought it was a real waste. Again, another person who was a product of their family.’
He believes his unhappy childhood must have
had something to do with his transvestism. ‘I certainly don’t believe there’s any genetic cause for it. How can you have a genetic cause for wanting to put on a bra?’ He roars his Sid James laugh. ‘That’s fairly unlikely, isn’t it? That’s a pretty specific gene if there is one.
‘I think you go through your childhood and you kind of collect experiences like tokens, and then at puberty you cash them in at the counter and they go, “Um, yeah, you’re probably a tranny,” and give you a licence; or you’re gay or whatever.
‘There may be some predisposition about gender dysphoria generally, and maybe transvestism is a part of that. But I don’t feel part of the trans community particularly; I’m a man who likes putting on dresses. I’m ver y happy being male. I like putting on dresses.’
For a long time, he says, his transvestism was ‘like being on a desert island. I never knew anybody did it. I never even knew it existed. I knew it wasn’t something you boasted about in the playground, though.’
It wasn’t until he was in his late teens that he met other transvestites, through a group called The Beaumont Society. ‘It’s an interesting experience to meet another transvestite for the first time. You look at them and go, “Oh God, that’s what
I look like!”’ He affects a horrified whisper. ‘“I’m one of them! A funny man in a dress!” But at the same time it’s lovely to meet other guys who are the same, particularly the ones I met who were confident and blissed-out about it.’ Two chaps, he remembers, had ‘been sailing out on the Solent, dressed up’.
One thing he noticed, he says, is that you put a man in a dress and he may step out of his gender, but never out of his class.
‘Being a tranny cuts a ver y clean line through t he demog raphic – t he sa me as homosexualit y does, probably. If there’s 20 per cent of people who are dyed-in-the-wool working class, then 20 per cent of trannies will be dyed-in-the-wool working class. I’ve met judges, lorry drivers and everybody in between.’ As he points out, one of the nice things about being a transvestite is, ‘you get to meet people you never would otherwise’.
The scene was much more clandestine then, he says, and anonymous. He needed a pseudonym, and it was his girlfriend who said, ‘you’re a Claire’. ‘I went, yeah, whatever…’
Early photographs suggest that you could have passed Claire in the street without looking twice. But in 2001 Perry staged a ‘coming out’ party for his friends, dressed in the Little Bo Peep satin dress that would become Claire’s signature look. He gave a speech, in which he described feeling ‘compelled to dress like this by a part of myself that is bur sting to find expression, apart of me that is vulnerable, softer, gentler, wondrous, innocent, even sweet’. It was this Claire who two years later stepped up to receive t he Turner Prize. As Perry put it, it was about time a transvestite potter won the Turner.
After his win, he says, one national newspaper tried to ‘in’ him – ‘the opposite of outing me’ – by suggesting he wasn’t a‘ real’ transvestite .‘ They found someone I’d been at school with, who said that I hadn’t dressed up at school,’ he laughs. ‘“These artists ... maybe he’s just doing it for the publicity.”’
Rather the truth is that he is both an unabashed exhibitionist and totally sincere. As a well-known artist and broadcaster, he says, Claire is apart of him‘ that has come along for the ride. It’ s a good publicrelations wing. You use whatever asset you can–PR is part of the modern cultural world. It’s a very competitive, crowded landscape now. A lot of artists turn their nose up at it. But everybody wants a bit of attention for what they do, or why do they do it? Why do you write, photograph, act? You want a bit of attention.’
These days, he doesn’t have the time for what he calls ‘leisure trannying’: dressing up for himself and going out to the shops. Claire tends to come out only for exhibition openings, parties, dinners. ‘If everybody’s thinking, I’d better smarten up for this, then that’s when I dress up. But I have a very low bar. I’ll dress up for anything.’
A keen cyclist, he will of ten cycle to events dressed as Claire. People will say hello at traffic lights ,‘ and it’s all very jolly. Of course, I’m no longer this anonymous pervert, which was part of the fun of it.’ This is said with a tinge of regret. Starting in his late30s,Perryun derwent six years of psychotherapy. This was partly to help him come to terms with his transvestism( although talking with him you sense that public affirmation has been the best therapy he could have had), and partly to curb what he describes as ‘a raft of bad habits’ that he’d inherited from his upbringing. The worst of them was anger. He was a par ti cu-
‘Of course, I’m no longer this anonymous pervert – which was part of the fun of it’
larly terrible road-rager if ever someone cut him up on his motorbike, he says. ‘And you probably wouldn’t want to do it now if I was on my bicycle. I wouldn’t get physical, but I’d certainly give someone a tongue-lashing. But I’ve never hit anybody.’ He has also purged himself of being what he calls ‘blamey’. ‘There’s a phrase I used to come out with sometimes, “Oh this is typical of my life...” There’s that divide between people who think the world happens to them, and people who think they have agency in the world. And I used to think that the world happened to me much more.
‘It’s that sort of embittered, victimy, working-class trait. I’m not tarring the whole of the working classes with that. But from my background it’s a very typical thing :“It’ s THEM! They’re responsible for what’s happening to me.” I think that anger is often about helplessness. I’ve got nowhere else to go but to explode. And now I don’t feel helpless, of course; now I have a relative amount of power.’
It would probably surprise no one that Perry’s wife, Philippa, is a psychotherapist. They met in 1987, at a creative-writing class, when she was still training. On one of their first outings together he took her to a transvestite club. ‘It wasn’t an issue,’ he says. ‘She walked in with her eyes open on that one.’ ( ‘I knew he’d be dressed up because he told me,’ she once recalled of picking him up at his house. ‘But when he answered the door, I thought, “My God, who is this person? Why is he living with a middle-aged woman?” And I found it amazing when he said, “No, it’s me.”’)
They have a daughter, Florence, 25, a journalist, who f rom a n ea rly age took his t ra nsvest ism in her stride – theirs is a household, Perr y once said, where t here have never been secrets – and wit h whom he has ‘a brilliant relationship’. How would he have fared with a son? He laughs. ‘It would have been interesting…’
Was it Philippa who suggested he should have some therapy?
He laughs. ‘Probably. I think I’ve been very lucky in that not only did I have therapy for six years, but I live with a therapist, so you have constant sur veillance going on and you’re talking all the time. My wife describes sanity as driv ing down a winding road where one ditch is chaos and the other ditch is rig idity, but you can never take your hand off the wheel. So it’s a constant process of topping up.’
Perr y took up potter y in the early 1980s, af ter leaving art school. He was on the dole, living in a squat in London – at one time he shared a house with Boy George, when he was just George O’dowd – experimenting with film and sometimes appearing at New Romantic clubs with a performance-art group called the Neo Naturists, whose act incor porated nudity and the deploy ment of body paint and vegetables. Pottery was small and saleable, if wildly unfashionable – ‘It kind of bemused the art world to do it,’ he says. ‘“Pottery?” And it took maybe the first 15 years of my career before people accepted it. I think it was because I didn’t make ceramic sculptures. I made sure I was working within the tradition.’ (Ceramics, he says, is ‘something I know quite a lot about’.)
I had met Perr y once before, at an ar ts festival held in the g rounds of a g rand countr y house. We were in a group being shown around the house by its owner, Perry in ‘full Claire’. There was a large collection of antique porcelain, and he had everyone in the palm of his hand, talking knowledgeably about t he maker a nd date of each piece. A man in a frock and pink Mary Janes lecturing on Meissen. It was an odd moment.
Pottery, he says ,‘ can be really hard work’, but he likes nothing better than a working day in his studio when he knows exactly what he needs to do, involving an element of skill and creativity, ‘but without having to make any major or difficult decisions’.
‘My ideal would be patterning something – radio on, dib, dib, dib, nice day... It’s flow, and psychologists who talk about happiness say that flow is the perfect state to be in. You need to have the skill, and it might take you 10,000 hours to get to the point where you can do it, but then you do it without any effort.’
His early work was highly autobiographical, reflecting his life and his obsessions, decorating his ceramics with motifs of childhood trauma, provocative slogans – ‘Ignorant and cruel mother’, ‘All men are bastards’ – and explicit sexual imagery. He once declared that one of his ambitions was to make the penis ‘as popular a decorative motif as the flower’.
But in recent years he has moved away from the personal to wider social and cultural themes. ‘I’ve done me,’ he says. ‘I’ve got it out of my system to a certain extent, and now it’s all
He once declared his ambition to make the penis ‘as popular a decorative motif as the flower’
about looking out into the world. That’s just the way I’ve gone.’
I ask to see some of the work for the new exhibition. He walks to a drawer and pulls out a print of the original artwork for a giant tapestry, depicting a landscape of modern Britain, wind-turbines, a motorway with a Waitrose lorry driving in one direction, and a Polish lorry driving the other way, an encampment that could be a mini-jungle, Brexit graffiti, an incongruous fragment of a Breughel painting (‘that’s a little sop to my own tastes. And middle-class people love an ar thistorical reference, of course’), and an overarching rainbow.
‘Nowadays that means LGBT to lots of people. I can imagine some young person in the not too distant future... the rain’s passed on a summer’ s afternoon, pointing up at the sky ... “Look, Mum! That cloud’s LGBT!” “No darling, that’s a rainbow…”’ He guffaws loudly.
The centrepieces of the exhibition are two monumental vases, which stand in his studio, awaiting the finishing touches: one for Brex iteers a nd one for Remainers. They were crafted by Perry after canvassing people on both sides of the divide; asking them, through social media, to contribute images of themselves and their heroes, objects, ideas and phrases – his own referendum.
The results were deeply revealing – and often surprising. Both sides chose the teapot as their dominant symbol, and the BBC as their favourite brand. Both sides chose Marmite – ‘but that’s quite apposite really. People love it or hate it ’– and, rather more surprisingly, David Bowie. The NHS featured strongly among Remainers, but not among Brexiteers. Remainers chose Jo Cox, David Attenborough and Barack Obama. Brex iteers chose the Queen, Nigel Farage, Walter Raleigh, Edward Elgar and – perhaps most surprisingly of all – Vivienne Westwood.
‘I think that’s what’s interesting about the whole debate that’s been going on: that the metropolitan liberal has had to take a dose of smelling salts,’ Perry says. ‘And for me, as a metropolitan liberal, that’s been quite interesting.’ And as a metropolitan liberal, did he vote Leave or Remain? ‘I can’t possibly say.’ He guffaws. ‘I’ve got to remain absolutely neutral.’ But I think we can guess.
As an artist, he says, he has been genuinely excited by Brexit, and by Trump. He likes nothing better than a bit of friction, having his views challenged and upset – ‘If someone convinces me I’m wrong, I love it! I love it!’ In a speech last year at a Creative Industries Federation event, he called for rightwing artists to be welcomed into the mainstream to challenge ‘the same old comfortable ideas’.
‘Well, I don’t know if I wished there were more,’ he says now with a laugh ,‘ but I do think it’ s very interesting that the art world – culture in general – is seen as a left-of-centre activity. Perhaps that’ s the natural proclivity of a creative person, I don’t know.
‘I thought it was interesting that one of the most arresting statements in the art world over the last few years was Tracey Emin saying she voted Tory. She’s very proudly working class in many ways, and that maybe part of it–working-class person done good. Maybe slightly resents paying a lot of tax...’ He laughs. ‘Not used to it.’
It is notable, he goes on, that while ‘art galleries are always interested in increasing their footfall, the people they never reach out to are blue-collar Tories’.
It is an oddity, and if anyone can change that, it’s Grayson Perry. The climax of all his television programmes is ‘the reveal’, where Perry shows the subjects of his programmes the art works arising from their encounters. In the All Man series, one of the most touching moments came when young members of a gang in Skelmersdale, west Lancashire, whom he had filmed earlier – a genuinely unsettling experience, he remembers – shuffled into a gallery space, hoods up, faces hidden behind scarves, and looked at the works they had inspired him to make (both of which are on show in the new Serpentine exhibition ). One, a map of their council-estate territory, spattered with grafitti and a huge penis; the other a brutalist ceramic sculpture of a figure replete with baseball cap, logos and North Face hoodie, stuck with knives, screwdrivers, scissors–apiece that Perry called King of Nowhere. These were kids, he says, who don’t watch television or read books, who certainly don’t go to art galleries –‘ they don’t even go to Liverpool. They live a very isolated life, and that’ s sad; their horizons are so closed down ’– gazing at the art works with looks of curiosity, surprise, revelation and, finally, unqualified approval.
‘For me, the great joy of doing what I do,’ Perry says, ‘and one of my most gratifying moments, is when somebody who the art-gallery world would regard as anon-traditional audience – or not characterise as “a culture person” – comes up to me and says, “I really loved your show, or that artwork you did.”’
He pauses. Going to art galleries, he says, ‘shouldn’t be like homework. It’s a leisure act iv ity. People might want some intellectual stimulation, but they want to enjoy it. I see one of my primary jobs as to delight them, to give them something they’ll really enjoy looking at – sensorily and narratively. And if you chuck in some ideas that might be a little more uncomfortable along the way, then so be it.
‘The art world has an ambiguous relationship with popularity; it wants to feel exclusive, because that gives its cultural product status with a certain group, but at the same time it wants visitor figures because it has to justify its public funding. There’s a tension there that they’re always negotiating. All galleries will do the critic-pleasing, difficult one, and then they’ll do the coach-party blockbuster one; that’s how they operate. And I’m very interested in that.’ Interested in being a coach-party blockbuster? That Sid James cackle. ‘I hope so!’
‘Going to galleries shouldn’t be like homework. I see one of my primary jobs as to delight people’
Art of politics Perry with his Leave and Remain vases (works in progress)
Rich and varied tapestry Grayson Perry, Red Carpet, 2017
Going to pot Pieces inspired by City bankers (left) and gang members from Perry’s TV series All Man
Hers and hers Perry with wife Philippa at a Damien Hirst exhibition at The Wallace Collection in 2009