Art review: Grayson Perry at the British Museum

The Turner Prize-winning artist takes pleasure in his own skill.

"Grayson Perry:The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman" is now showing at the British Museum. When I visited, a few weeks after its opening, the gloriously gaudy pots of the wonderfully camp and kitschy transvestite artist Perry, shown alongside works from the past, were still turning heads

Turner Prize winner Perry has, in this compact but memorable exhibition, juxtaposed his seductive ceramics, tapestries and metal-works alongside similar items from the British Museum's permanent collection. Perry's objets, with their tutti-frutti colours, seem to light up the dusty exhibits placed next to them, breathing new life into old bones.

Perry is obsessive about the craft involved in the production of his work, something unusual amongst recent Turner Prize artists. In one sense, then, this show is a celebration of Perry's pleasure in his own skill. Or, as the excellent and well-illustrated catalogue says, "The Unknown Craftsman is an artist in the service of his religion, his master, his tribe, his tradition."

Tomb Guardian, a glazed green and white Perry ceramic from 2011, is placed, in its glass case, next to a tapestry doll from Peru (c900-1430). The latter piece served, in its time, as a totemic figure to warn and protect its owner, its wide-awake hand-stitched eyes and frowning slit-like mouth shamanistic talismans of spiritual power. Perry's modern-day equivalent is the glazed ceramic, a grotesque demonic figure with arms raised in warning, the tip of its erect phallus a second demonic head, complete with horns.

Perry first visited the Museum as a six year old, and now, forty-odd years later, he is staging an exhibition here centred on a detailed model ship. "Is my unconscious leading me to play out some elaborate act of catharsis using an institution?" he muses. The large cast-iron model ship he has made for this show is also a tomb of sorts, an iron ship ready to sail into the afterlife, one inspired by the original Egyptian models or the ship burials like that uncovered at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk in 1931. It is also serves as a pun, a craft for the craftsman. Hung with casts of the fruits of the labours of craftsmen and carrying symbolic blood, sweat and tears stored in glass phials strung about the ship's masts, the central reliquary is symbolic of all tools, being a large flint axe head a quarter-million years old. This is, for Perry, a mystical object: "Holding such a tool in my hand and feeling its fit was my most moving memory of my pilgrimage through the stores of this great institution. This whole exhibition rotates around this humble stone."

Closest to Perry's heart among all the objects on show is Alan Measles, a fifty-year-old teddy bear that has belonged to the artist since birth, and which was, the artist tells us, "'the benign director of my childhood imaginary world". The battered teddy, in his faded cardy, inspired the gold-glazed ceramic that stands next to it: Prehistoric Gold Pubic Alan Dogu, from 2007. Nearby is a furniture fitting carved in the form of the god Bes, from ancient Egypt. "If Alan Measles had been around in ancient Egypt he would have hung around with Bes," Perry assures us.

The Frivolous Now, a large ceramic vase from 2011, is as good an example as any of Perry's ability to chronicle contemporary life, with wit, sentiment and perception, but that also has roots in the past. At first glance the lettering and images that cover its surface bring to mind the lead-glazed earthenware pieces of potter Thomas Toft, a celebrated artist-craftsman from the late 1600s, whose works are also on show here. But the scriptum, and accompanying images, relate to wholly contemporary themes, such as bullying in schools, our obsession with celebrity culture and the paranoia evoked by ubiquitous CCTV.

"Grayson Perry:The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman" runs until 19 February, 2012

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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