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

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump