A glimpse of Grayson Perry's House for Essex. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Grayson Perry’s new house is a dollop of architectural fun

Cult figure Grayson Perry has won over the locals with his eccentric House for Essex.

At the end of Black Boy Lane, a farm track sneaking out of the northern Essex village of Wrabness (population: 400), two bouncers wearing black suits and wrap-around sunglasses are guarding a gate. The muscle, seemingly imported from the fleshpot nightclubs of Basildon or Romford, isn’t there to protect a local pop star or footie player but a celebrity of another kind – the artist Grayson Perry.

Behind the two men, Perry, in male artist mode rather than female partygoer attire, is holding forth about his latest jeu d’esprit, a small, intricately tiled building – part gingerbread house, part wayside chapel – sitting at the edge of a field that slopes gently down to the River Stour, with Suffolk resting on the opposite bank. A House for Essex, or “Julie’s house”, is a collaboration between the potter/tapestry-maker and the FAT architectural practice – a part of the Living Architecture scheme, dreamt up by Alain de Botton so that people can rent out holiday homes designed by “world-class” practitioners. People, in this instance, will need to stump up £1,800 for a three-night stay.

What they get for their money is a trim, two-bedroom property constructed from four boxes of descending scale, something akin to an architectural Russian doll. The roof is covered with a shiny copper alloy and decorated with sculptural finials. The walls are clad with 1,925 ceramic tiles, each cast with Perry-style fetish symbols: a nappy pin, a cassette tape, a heart and a scooter wheel.

Inside, there hangs a series of tapestries, above which looms a life-size statue of a woman of substantial girth. It’s a bit Game of Thrones meets The Hobbit, or, to mangle the metaphors further, a “Taj Mahal upon the Stour”, as Perry puts it.

To justify the building’s appearance and explain the iconography, Perry invented the story of Julie Cope – a fictional Essex Everywoman whose story takes us from her birth (on Canvey Island in 1953) to her death (in 2014, after she was hit by a curry delivery scooter), stopping on the way for two marriages, children, a career as a social worker and homes that filter her away from the conurbations of estuary Essex and up into the county’s rural hinterland (Julie’s gravestone stands in the back garden of the house). Her social mobility, reckons Perry – an Essex man – is archetypal and Julie’s house doubles as a pilgrimage shrine to a woman who represents innumerable unsung heroines.

The backstory is an elaborate justification for a dollop of architectural fun. As Perry notes, “Minimalism is the new kitsch.” Who knows how much the artist believes in Julie’s story, or in his claim that the house is “a three-dimensional musing on religion, local history, feminism, happiness and death” (let alone the architect’s supposed influences, ranging from the arts and crafts movement to the English baroque)?

The house has won over local people. A presentation by Perry at the nearby community centre, during which he pointed out that he didn’t intend “to socially engineer Wrabness”, was the turning point.

What is certain is that the pilgrims who make the journey to this distant corner of Essex are unlikely to be devotees of the martyred Julie, but rather of the bouncer-protected cult of Grayson Perry. 

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

Photo: Getty
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Standing up to China’s censors: an attempt to delete history backfires

For years now, the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square.

At the time, the massacre in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing on the night of 3 June 1989 was the worst thing I’d ever seen. In front of the Beijing Hotel, where my camera team and I took refuge after we’d escaped from the square itself, I counted 40 people killed or wounded by soldiers of the Chinese army. A photographer who was standing on the next balcony to ours was shot dead when the gunner of a passing tank casually sprayed the hotel with machine-gun bullets.

During the previous three weeks I had spent almost every day in the square, making friends with dozens of students who were demonstrating there. How many of them were killed that night I have never been able to find out. It’s not the kind of thing you can easily forgive or forget. 

For years now the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square that night. This may or may not be literally true, though I saw for myself the bullet-scars on the stone steps of the monument in the middle of the square before they were repaired, so it probably isn’t. But this is just playing with words; the real killing fields were the avenues leading away from Tiananmen Square, such as Chang’an Avenue, which runs past the Beijing Hotel. The implication of the official line is that the massacre was simply invented by the western media. Fake news. Sad.

Tiananmen paralysed China for an entire month, and damaged its relations with the outside world for years. Even today, more than a quarter-century later, it retains its intense toxicity. A Chinese newspaper journalist I know got into trouble for referring to it as a “tragedy”; if you have to refer to it, you must call it simply “the Tiananmen events” – but it’s better not to mention it at all.

It was bad enough in what now seems with hindsight like the liberal, benevolent reign of Hu Jintao. Since 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power and introduced an increasingly ferocious crackdown on dissent, every official throughout the vast Chinese system is aware of the urgent need to keep away from sensitive subjects: not just Tiananmen, but the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Which is how, earlier this month, a Chinese import agency came into conflict with the oldest publishing house anywhere, over the world’s best and most respected journal of Chinese studies. The China Quarterly, double-blind and peer-reviewed, is owned by the School of Oriental and African Studies, but Cambridge University Press publishes it. The Quarterly’s website of course carries many articles on just these subjects. The import agency suddenly ordered CUP to take down all 315 of them, some dating back to the 1960s, from its website within China; if it didn’t happen, the Chinese said, they would be forced to close the entire website down.

CUP fell over itself to obey, in order, it said, “to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market”. Which, as a defence of freedom of speech, isn’t quite up there with John Milton, himself a Cambridge alumnus, in Areopagitica:  “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

The China Quarterly’s admirable editor, Tim Pringle, in the quiet but steely way that befits a scholar under pressure, allowed it to be known what CUP had done, and dozens of outraged scholars and others yelled about it as loudly as Twitter and Facebook would allow. The China Quarterly’s first editor, Roderick MacFarquhar, nowadays a sprightly octogenarian who teaches at Harvard, weighed in angrily on behalf of the organ whose high reputation he had helped to create, and some rough words were used about academic publishers who did the work of an autocracy’s censors for them.

To do it credit, CUP listened and realised what irreparable damage they were doing to the China Quarterly; and it announced on Monday that it was reinstating all the articles.

Pringle couldn’t resist a bit of high-minded reproof:  “Access to published materials of the highest quality is a core component of scholarly research,” he wrote. “It is not the role of respected global publishing houses such as CUP to hinder such access.” And he added:  “Our publication criteria will not change: scientific rigour and the contribution to knowledge about China.” Milton would have been proud of him.

Does any of this really matter? Well, it’s a useful object-lesson in how to approach China. Personally, I don’t think Xi Jinping and his friends, as they splash around in the lakes and swimming pools of Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party retreat beside the Forbidden City, will have known or heard anything about it. In spite of its refusal to admit the dreadfulness of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre, China isn’t really just an Orwellian society where officials labour away destroying or rewriting the files of the past. No doubt the party would like to, but it simply isn’t a shot on the board in the modern world.

You just have to turn to Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. After CUP decided to reverse its self-censoring operation, hundreds of brave souls in China took to the internet to greet the news with pleasure and relief. Some had the courage to put their names to their comments: “It is a triumph of morality,” wrote Zhang Lifan, a Beijing historian. Another historian, Sun Peidong, praised the international chorus of disapproval that had brought about CUP’s change of heart. Someone else, unnamed, wrote “Cambridge University has backbone.”

Even in the days of clampdown and repression, you can just about get away with saying this kind of thing; though within hours some government job’s-worth had deleted the entire discussion from Weibo. But right across China decent, honourable people who believe in telling the truth now know CUP and Cambridge University haven’t, after all, sold the pass.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia