Grayson Perry with ‘The Upper Class at Bay’
We don’t talk much about class these days, but its presence is palpable in Manchester Art Gallery at the moment. It haunts Jeremy Deller’s magisterial exhibition All That Is Solid Melts Into Air that is about the defining and continuing impact of the Industrial Revolution. And the interrelationship of class, social mobility and taste is central to Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences, also currently on display there.
In The Vanity of Small Differences, Grayson Perry pays homage to Hogarth’s 18th century series, A Rake’s Progress. Hogarth’s paintings and prints told the story of the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell, the spendthrift who inherits a fortune but loses everything in a satirically-observed downward spiral of vice and degradation. Perry has altered the plot and applied his narrative to contemporary society, documenting the rise and fall of software millionaire Tim Rakewell in a series of six enormous tapestries.
Grayson Perry has often acknowledged his fascination with Hogarth, once remarking, ‘I identify with his Englishness, his robust humour and his depiction of, in his own words, ‘modern moral subjects”. The gallery also has on Hogarth’s A Rakes Progress on display in an adjacent room, so you can see how much Perry has drawn from Hogarth’s 1733 tale of an anti-hero who acquires wealth and social status but then loses everything – and how much he has created a work that is entirely his own vision, acutely relevant to contemporary England.
In both series the central character gains wealth and status with ease, makes poor choices and loses everything before dying in horrific circumstances. Like Hogarth, Perry crams his scenes with anecdotal details that place the characters in their time and bring to life character and motivation. Both artists are acute observers of human behaviour and the relationship between social class and taste. Both love irony and the absurd. However, Perry has more empathy with his people, and is less judgemental than Hogarth.The series grew out of the TV series that Perry made for Channel 4 – All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry, in which he travelled across England exploring the meaning of class in modern Britain and the extent to which our tastes are determined by our class. He travelled to Sunderland to study the working class, went to Tumbridge Wells to meet the middle class, and the Cotswolds to spend time with the upper class. In each episode he spent time talking with people and joining in their social rituals.
Whilst filming in Sunderland, Tunbridge Wells and the Cotswolds, Perry made notes, drawings and photos to be used as source materials. Back in his studio, he began to plot the life story of his central character and organise ideas into six compositions. The result was the six large-scale tapestries that Perry subsequently donated to the nation. The tapestries were woven by Flanders Tapestries in Belgium – Perry’s drawings were translated into a computer program that controlled a digital loom. Each tapestry was made in a limited edition of six.
At the beginning of the exhibition, a statement from Perry explains what he hoped to achieve with the work:
The tapestry tries to tell the story of class mobility, for I think nothing has as strong an influence on our aesthetic taste as the social class in which we grow up. I am interested in the politics of consumerism and the story of popular design, but, for this project, I focus on the emotional investment we make in the things we choose to live with, wear, eat, read or drive. Class and taste run deep in our character – we care. This emotional charge is what draws me to a subject.
‘The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal’ (detail)
In an interesting piece for the Financial Times, Simon Schama wrote of Perry’s painstaking care with each and every detail of the tapestries, especially the colours, wanting to precisely nail the habitat and the costume of the social tribes who feature in his story:
All this is in the service of the kind of social storytelling of which he is the contemporary master and which he delivers with the warmest-hearted of sensibilities. He laughs at the journalist who interviewed him for Le Monde, who thought that the picture he delivered of modern Britain from ‘The Agony in the Car Park’ to the vainglory of the Oliver-esque kitchen table was ‘bleak’. Perry is a shrewd psycho-ethnographer of the consumer tribes of modern Britain but one sympathetic to its rich vein of human comedy exactly because he recognises so much of their foibles in himself. ‘Whenever I find myself bristling at something, I ask myself, ‘Is there a bit of me in the person I am not liking? And the answer is, ‘Yes, totally.’ Oh, I am so part of the aching cycle of self-awareness and self-hatred: the need for individuation and the equal need for belonging. I want to be a tribe of one yet have everybody in it.’
In an appreciation of The Vanity of Small Differences written for the Guardian, Suzanne Moore observed that ‘Perry has instinct’; for example:
He understands that working-class taste is about display and comfort and bling and play. Of course it is ridiculous, some of it. It is nasty and ostentatious at its worst, and as sentimental as we see in his depiction of it (The Agony in the Car Park). But there is a generosity there – an ability to live in the moment. Getting ready to go out is as much fun as going out; in Sunderland, Perry played with the current aesthetic of the hyper-feminine (The Adoration of the Cage Fighters).
Here are the six tapestries, accompanied by Perry’s notes and the text that appears on each one (from a leaflet given to each gallery visitor).
The Adoration of the Cage Fighters
The scene is Tim’s great-grandmother’s front room. The infant Tim reaches for his mother’s smartphone – his rival for her attention. She is dressed up, ready for a night out with her four friends, who have perhaps already been on ‘the pre-lash’. Two ‘Mixed Martial Arts’ enthusiasts present icons of tribal identity to the infant: a Sunderland AFC football shirt and a miner’s lamp. In the manner of early Christian painting, Tim appears a second time in the work: on the stairs, as a four-year-old, facing another evening alone in front of a screen. Although this series of images developed very organically, with little consistent method, the religious reference was here from the start: I hear the echo of paintings such as Andrea Mantegna’s The Adoration of the Shepherds (c 1450).
Andrea Mantegna, The Adoration of the Shepherds, c1450
Text (in the voice of Tim’s Mother):
‘I could have gone to Uni, but I did the best I could, considering his father upped and left. He (Tim) was always a clever little boy, he knows how to wind me up. My mother liked a drink, my father liked one too. Ex miner a real man, open with his love, and his anger. My Nan though is the salt of the earth, the boy loves her. She spent her whole life looking after others. There are no jobs round here anymore, just the gym and the football. A normal family, a divorce or two, mental illness, addiction, domestic violence…the usual thing…My friends they keep me sane…take me out…listen…a night out of the weekend in town is a precious ritual.
The Agony in the Car Park
This image is a distant relative of Giovanni Bellini’s The Agony in the Garden (c 1465). The scene is a hill outside Sunderland – in the distance is the Stadium of Light. The central figure, Tim’s stepfather, a club singer, hints at Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. A child-like shipyard crane stands in for the crucifix, with Tim’s mother as Mary – once again in the throes of an earthly passion. Tim, in grammar school uniform, blocks hjs ears, squirming in embarrassment. A computer magazine sticks out of his bag, betraying his early enthusiasm for software. To the left, a younger Tim plays happily with his step-grandfather outside his pigeon cree on the allotments. To the right, young men with their customised cars gather in the car park of ‘Heppie’s’ social club. Mrs T and the call centre manager await a new recruit into the middle class.
Bellini, The Agony in the Garden, c 1465
Matthias Grunewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512–1516
Text (in the voice of Tim’s stepfather): ‘I started as a lad in the shipyards. I followed in my father’s footsteps. Now Dad has his pigeons and he loves the boy [Tim Shipbuilding bound the town together like a religion. When Thatcher closed the yards down it ripped the heart out of the community. I could have been a rock band [above graffiti of Sunderland band The Futureheads] I met the boy’s mother at the club. I sing on a Saturday night between the bingo and the meat raffle. Now I work in a call centre, the boss says I am management material. The money’s good, I could buy my council house, sell it and get out. I voted Tory last time.’
Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close
Tim is at university studying computer science, and is going steady with a nice girl from Tunbridge Wells. To the left, we see Tim’s mother and stepfather, who now live on a private development and own a luxury car. She hoovers the AstroTurf lawn, he returns from a game of golf. There has been an argument and Tim and his girlfriend are leaving. They pass through a rainbow, while Jamie Oliver, the god of social mobility, looks down. They are guilty of a sin, just like Adam and Eve in Masaccio’s The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (c 1425). To the right, a dinner party is just starting. Tim’s girlfriend’s parents and fellow guests toast the new arrival.
Masaccio, The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, 1425
Text (in the voice of Tim’s girlfriend): ‘I met Tim at College, he was Such a Geek. He took me back to meet his mother and Stepfather. Their house was so clean and Tidy, not a speck of dust… or a book, apart from her god, Jamie. She Says I have turned Tim into a Snob. His parents don’t appreciate how bright he is. My father laughed at Tim’s accent but welcomed him onto the sunlit uplands of the middle classes. 1 hope Tim loses his obsession with money.’
The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal
‘Tim is relaxing with his family in the kitchen of his rural (second) home. His business partner (in yellow) has just told him that he is now an extremely wealthy man, as they have sold their software business to Richard Branson. On the table is a still life demonstrating the cultural bounty of his affluent lifestyle.To the left, his parents-in-law read, and his elder child plays on the rug. To the right, Tim dandles his baby while his wife tweets. This image includes references to three different paintings of the Annunciation – by Carlo Crivelli (the vegetables), Matthias Grunewald (his colleague’s expression) and Robert Campin (the jug of lilies). The convex mirror and discarded shoes are reminders of that great pictorial display of wealth and status, The Amolfini Portrait (1434), by Jan van Eyck.
Text (in the voice of Tim’s business partner): ‘I have worked with Tim for a decade, a genius, yet so down to earth. Tim’s incredibly driven, he never feels successful. He’s calmer since his mother died. He’s had a lot of therapy. He wants to be good.’
Text on copy of The Guardian used to wrap organic vegetables: ‘A Geek’s Progress,Tim Rakewell: risen without trace’ Text on iPad: ‘Rakewell sells to Virgin for £270m’
Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation, 1486
Robert Campin, The Merode Altarpiece, c 1425
With the new brilliance of oil painting, invented in Flanders where Perry gets his tapestries woven, and which drew on textile craft – dyeing and weaving – for the appeal of its pictures. (There’s a sly, mirroring allusion to van Eyck’s Arnolfini wedding couple in one of the tapestries.) Flemish and Dutch painting was intensely material, revelling in the texture of the stuff that piled up in their early form of consumer culture: its food, clothes, the fixtures and fittings of bourgeois life. And that art did something else as well, which set it aside from the rigorous fixed-point perspective of Italian classicism: it encompassed an entire social universe with an omnivorous appetite for all human types. Avercamp’s skating scenes and Rembrandt’s most socially encyclopedic etchings such as ‘The Hundred Guilder Print’ or ‘St John the Baptist Preaching’, with their wailing babies, gnarly beggars and crapping dogs are what made possible Hogarth, Goya, the painters of Victorian crowd scenes, such as William Powell Frith (for whom Perry has a soft spot), LS Lowry and Grayson Perry.
The Upper Class at Bay
Tim Rakewell and his wife are now in their late forties and their children are grown. They stroll, like Mr and Mrs Andrews in Thomas Gainsborough’s famous portrait of the landed gentry (c 1750), in the grounds of their mansion in the Cotswolds. They are new money; they can never become upper-class in their lifetime. In the light of the sunset, they watch the old aristocratic stag with its tattered tweed hide being hunted down by the dogs of tax, social change, upkeep and fuel bills. The old landowning breed is dying out. Tim has his own problems; as a ‘fat cat’ he has attracted the ire of an ‘Occupy’-style protest movement, who camp outside his house. The protester silhouetted between the stag’s antlers refers to paintings of the vision of Saint Hubert, who converted from the leisured life of a nobleman on seeing a vision of a crucifix above the head of a stag.
Thomas Gainsborough, Mr and Mrs Andrews, c1750
The scene is the aftermath of a car accident at an intersection near a retail park. Tim lies dead in the arms of a stranger. His glamorous second wife stands stunned and bloodstained amidst the wreckage of his Ferrari. To the right, paramedics prepare to remove his body. To the left, police and firemen record and clear the crash scene. Onlookers take photos with their camera phones to upload to the internet. His dog lays dead. The contents of his wife’s expensive handbag spill out over a copy of Hello magazine that features her and Tim on the cover. At the bottom of Rogier van der Weyden’s Lamentation (c 1460), the painting that inspired this image, is a skull; I have substituted it with a smashed smartphone which refers back to the first tapestry in the series, where Tim reaches for his mother’s phone. This scene also echoes the final painting of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1733), where Tom Rakewell dies naked in ‘The Madhouse’.
Rogier van der Weyden, Lamentation, c 1460
Text in the voice of a female passer-by: ‘We were walking home from a night out, these two cars, racing each other, speed past. Middle aged men showing off, the red one lost control. The driver wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. He didn’t stand a chance. The female passenger was okay but catatonic with shock. I’m a nurse. I tried to save the man but he died in my arms. It was only afterwards I found out that he was that famous computer guy, Rakewell. All he said to me was ‘Mother’. All that money and he dies in the gutter.’
William Hogarth, ‘The Madhouse’ from ‘A Rake’s Progress’
Final words on this magnificent series from Suzanne Moore again:
At a time when social mobility has ground to a halt – when inequality booms and cannot be bust – Perry reminds us of how we tell each other who we are and who we belong to. In these conservative times, this is a radical thing to be doing. That is why this work is important. Sometimes things not only look good; they are good. I am making a moral judgement here, but then I recognise myself – my flaws, my dreams – in these tapestries of joy and despair, of ugliness and beauty.
As Perry has said: “Taste is a tender subject. What really fascinates me about the topic of aesthetic taste is that people really care.” What really fascinates me about these works is precisely that they are really caring – and for those often not cared for. Classlessness is a dream. The ability to accrue cultural capital, to shift class, as both Perry and I have managed somehow to do, is being taken away. Taste, like everything else, will be further privatised; we are not all in it together. These tapestries put the debate back in the public realm. Taste belongs to all of us. Make it your own. For this is how we live now.
Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress at the Sir John Soane Museum (BBC)
- Grayson Perry’s tapestries: weaving class and taste: Insightful review by Suzanne Moore (Guardian)
- The Vanity of Small Differences: Perry explains the idea (Channel 4)
- Grayson Perry’s 2013 Reith lectures: links to recordings, transcripts, video and drawings
- Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress: Sir John Soane Museum
- John Soane’s Museum: a cornucopia of curiosities
- Simon Schama meets Grayson Perry (FT)
- All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: ‘from this filthy sewer pure gold flows‘
- Radical Figures: the reinvention of figurative art in post-war Britain