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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times