Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. Photography
10 December 2020updated 18 Aug 2021 12:10pm

The photo that shaped me: Grayson Perry on his father’s motorbike

When I was four, my dad left because my mother had an affair with the milkman. I remember my dad's bike leaning against the wall of our council house.

By Grayson Perry

This is a photograph of my father Tom taken in the early 1950s. He sits on a motorcycle he bought straight from army surplus. It had been stored covered in grease to protect it, and he described riding it home in a cloud of black smoke as the grease burned off the engine, leaving him black with soot.

When I was four, he left because my mother had an affair with the milkman. I remember his bike leaning against the wall of our council house. He had hand-painted it bright red. One time, he sat me on the petrol tank and took me for a ride down the street. I remember looking at the bike, maybe even climbing on to the seat, and trying to conjure him up. I expect it is no coincidence I have ridden motorcycles all my adult life.

My father was a keen photographer; he had his own darkroom. After he left, my stepfather encouraged my mother to make a clean break. She threw a whole suitcase full of my father’s photographs on to a bonfire. After that, no one in my family owned a camera. I think some families try to delete their history.

Consequently, family photographs are a sore point for me. From birth until I went to art college when I was 19, there are perhaps less than a dozen photographs of me. Young people today probably take that many over the course of a lunch break.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

I recontacted my father when I was a teenager, but the connection had atrophied. I see him every so often. I first saw this photograph when I was in my mid-40s, and researching my autobiography.

Content from our partners
The truth about employability
Why we need a Minister for Citizen Experience
Look at the person, not the CV

A few years later, I had an exhibition in an art museum in Japan. Without thinking twice about it, I showed the image during a lecture about my work. My younger sister Helen was in the audience. After the lecture she was quite upset. She said she hadn’t taken much of it in because she was in shock. She had not met her father since she was a toddler, and this was the first time she had ever seen an image of him.

This article is from our “Photo that shaped me” series

Topics in this article :

This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special