Grayson Perry tapestries – The Vanity of Small Differences


Grayson Perry’s travelling tapestries were stationed in Bath when our Ertegun troop visited in March. Another cohort of scholars, myself included, had seen the tapestries two years previously in Birmingham. This was my chance to take a second look, and I was not disappointed. My intention is to offer some reflections on the social commentary behind Perry’s project and highlight the fact that Perry is provoking reflection not just on class in Britain, but also secularisation.

The artworks grew out of the television series All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry (Channel 4, 2012). Perry, through encounters with various English people belonging to different milieus, observes very well the subtle differences in taste associated with class.

William Hogarth’s set of eight paintings The Rake’s Progress (1733) is a tale of moral descent and personal failure, in which the protagonist, Tom Rakewell, dies debt-ridden in a madhouse. Taking inspiration from Hogarth, Perry invents a character Tim Rakewell , whose ascent of the ladder of social mobility – from working class boy to British Bill Gates – is depicted in six great tapestries. Tim does not end in the madhouse, but at the roadside, having sped his Ferrari into a lamppost, not wearing his seatbelt. Of course the irresponsible driving suggests, as in Hogarth’s tale, a moral lesson. Yet Perry’s point is not to moralise, but to open our eyes to the phenomenon of class difference, to which we are on some levels blind.

Brits know about class, of course. We have a sense of coming from a particular class and maybe of having moved into another class, even if the shoe never quite fits. What Perry draws our attention to is the subtle ways in which our taste, expressed in our clothing, furniture, crockery, holiday destinations and hobbies, defines our identity in distinction to and demarcation from others. It is not merely that we recognise class as a difference to do with educational attainment, number of books at home, or level of household income. It’s that certain other tastes – things some people love and find delight in – even disgust us:

“A big part of middle-class-ness is defining oneself as different, seeing one’s taste as ‘normal’ and other people’s as ‘not right’”. (Exhibition Catalogue, p. 12)

We are perhaps more aware than ever of the economic divisions within Western societies. The imagined social contract, the sense that we are “all in this together”, is indeed endangered by vast differences in wealth. Important as this is to Labour party member Perry, in his tapestries he puts his finger on an aesthetic division which can evoke even bodily reactions. How true! Growing up in a middle class home, teachers for parents, lots of books, mugs saying ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’, holidays in the Yorkshire Dales or Cornwall, I can sense that the boundary between the aesthetic and the moral gets blurred. Certain things feel bad not because they are necessarily morally wrong, but because they are considered tacky, too commercial. I don’t generally consider myself a snob but when I once went to Blackpool Pier dutifully accompanying some children on a trip I felt the whole experience was nauseating. They loved it. Perry points out that these aesthetic judgements are unconscious because “a childhood spent marinating in the material culture of one’s class means taste is soaked right through you.” (p. 11).

Medieval religious art also provides the inspiration for several of the six tapestry scenes. The presence of religious art is not just ironic, not simply a case of finding a theme on which to hang the narrative. For ‘reading’ these tapestries alongside Perry’s very pedagogical explanations suggests to me that he is attuned to theological themes, and desires his audience to reflect on the role of religion in modern Britain.

Tim Rakewell as a baby on his mother’s lap is like Christ, with Mary, being adored by the shepherds, the shepherds being his tattooed cage-fighting uncles. Yet unlike Christ with his doting mother, Tim fights with the smartphone for maternal attention. The scene of Tim Rakewell at the end of his life, at the roadside, is like a Pietà (Mary cradling the body of her dead Son, Jesus). Tim dies saying “Mother” to the stranger in whose arms he dies.

In the stories and subtexts of the New Testament, Christ fulfils all the legacies of the great figures of the Hebrew Bible, such as Moses and Elijah. Thus he is also the last Adam, which means he both stands for humanity as it should be, in right relation with the divine, yet enters into the broken and alienated experience of humanity as it is. Thus Tim, as Christ, stands for the alienation and unfulfilled desires of – well who? Certainly the socially mobile, whose experiences of broken or awkward relationships with their families and alienation from their cultural background give their lives a sense of nostalgia and guilt, even though the past from which they came was never paradise.

Tim’s world is secular, post-Christian Britain, and Perry highlights this in carefully imagined quotes from those who observe Tim’s life. His mother describes Tim’s Nan (who belongs to the cultural world before the great fall in church attendance in the 1960s) as “the salt of the earth”, a secularised phrase from the Sermon on the Mount. But her children and grandchildren know only one “ritual” which gives their lives rhythm and sanity: a night out on the town.

In the North East, “shipbuilding bound the town together like a religion. When Thatcher closed the yards down it ripped the heart out of the community.” The point behind the political point: Christian religion as cohesive force in society was lost long before shipbuilding was lost. When Tim is middle aged and his mother has died, it is therapy and not the church which provides direction for his new-found desire to “be good” in the wake of a reminder of his own mortality.

In the tapestry of Tim’s death, the skull of Rogier van der Weyden’s painting Lamentation (c.1460) is replaced with a smashed smartphone, which Perry says links back to the phone in the first picture. I am not sure what the link is meant to suggest, but I made this connection: The skull is a symbol of my own mortality, memento mori – remember that you are dust. But in this post-Christian Pietà, there is no symbol for the religious reader nudging them to read Psalm 90 and meditate upon their frailty. Instead there is only that symbol of distraction from existential questions by means of endless digital information, now finally offline. Instead it is Perry’s explanation which underlines the lesson in mortality which the skull would once have mediated. Perry has the stranger saying: “All that money and he dies in the gutter”. Dust to dust!

Another small detail in the final tapestry offers another clue: A copy of HELLO! Magazine strewn on the pavement. Tim and his second wife still read celebrity gossip. This time they are the stars: TIM AND AMBER. EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS OF SOFTWARE GENIUS AND HIS NEW WIFE, the headline shouts. Tim is pictured cosying up to his much younger spouse. But inside the magazine, the front cover tells us, is another exclusive: ALAIN DE BOTTON SHOWS US ROUND HIS NEW TEMPLE. Perry is referring to popular philosopher Alain de Botton who famously suggested in early 2012 that there should be a temple for atheists to explore their spirituality. De Botton advocates “Religion for Atheists” (in distinction from atheists who are disparaging of religion) and thinks that modern society needs a substitute for that religious practice which provides meaning and creates community.

Thus while offering social commentary on class in Britain, Perry is along the way reflecting on secularisation understood as the loss of religious belief as an integrating force in society and giver of meaning on a personal level. Here I sense in his work a self-aware religious nostalgia. There was no golden age of religion, when all held hands in national unity, just as there was no working-class idyll for Tim Rakewell. But there remains a deep religious longing for something which would give the course of our lives more coherence than a night on the town, a day spent surfing online, and the pursuit of wealth and possessions.

The exhibition at the Victoria Museum, run by Bath & North East Somerset Council, is now over. However further exhibitions of the tapestries are planned in Coventry, Worcester and Canterbury this year. I highly recommend seeking them out.

Sam Shearn