Thursday 22 May 2014

The Vanity of Small Differences - Grayson Perry

The Vanity of Small Differences, by Grayson Perry at Birmingham Museum and Gallery.

Grayson Perry designed six tapestries as part of a series he made for Channel 4  'All in the Best Possible Taste'. He believes that 'more than any other factor - more than age, race, religion or sexuality - one's social class determines one's taste'. He travelled all around Britain to find out what was considered good taste among the working class residents of Sunderland, the middle class of Tunbridge Wells and the upper class of the Cotswolds.  He also examined the idea of social mobility between the classes. The tapestries are a modern version of A Rake's Progress, the series of paintings by 18th century artist William Hogarth. Like Hogarth's hero, Tim Rakewell, Perry's hero, comes from the working class, makes enough money to buy himself an upper class life style and then dies a tragic death.

The exhibition is above all about class, the subject that is never mentioned,  but which is nevertheless one of the central tenets of the fabric of our society. What Perry brings home through this exhibition is that we visually signal class difference to each other through consumption: how we dress, what we eat, how we decorate our homes, how we present ourselves in general. Consumerism, the exercise of taste, has become the way we signal our identity, where we belong. Lifestyle is all.

He shows the working class's love of display, comfort, bling and play and their ability to live for the moment. This is something the upper class are unable to do, who cannot live in the moment and who only live in the past. As for the middle class, Perry shows them to be insecure, self-conscious, anxious about their position.

At a time when social mobility has ground to a halt, when the gap between the rich and the poor is bigger than ever, it's important that an artist has articulated the differences that divide us and has shown how individual identity is shaped predominantly by the class we belong to, but also by our consumption of goods, which has become paramount.

The Adoration of the Cage Fighters, 2012

The scene is Tim's great-grandmother's room. The infant Tim reaches for his mother's smartphone - his rival for her attention. She is dressed up ready for a night out with her four friends who have already been on the pre-lash. Two 'Mixed Martial Arts' enthusiasts present icons of tribal identity to the infant: a Sunderland AFC football shirt and a miners' lamp. In the manner of early Christian painting, Tim appears a second time in the work: on the stairs as a four-year old, facing another evening alone in front of a screen.

Although this series of images developed very organically, with little consistent method, the religious reference was here from the start: I hear the echo of paintings such as Andrea Mantegna's The Adoration of the Shepherds, c.1450.

The Agony in the Car Park, 2012

This image is a distant relative of Giovanni Bellini's The Agony in the Garden (c.1465). The scene is a hill outside Sutherland - in the distance is the Stadium of Light. The central figure, Tim's stepfather, a club singer, hints at Matthias Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-16). A naively-drawn shipyard crane stands in for the crucifix, with Tim's mother as Mary below it - once again in the throes of an earthly passion. Tim, in grammar school uniform, blocks his ears squirming in embarrassment. A computer magazine sticks out of his bag, betraying his early enthusiasm for software. To the left, a younger Tim plays happily with his stepfather outside his pigeon cree on the allotments. To the right, young men with their custom cars gather in front of 'Heppies' social club. Mrs T and the call centre manager await a new recruit into the middle classes.

Expulsion from No. 8 Eden Close, 2012

Tim is at University studying computer science, and is going steady with a young woman from Tunbridge Wells. To the left, we see Tim's mother and stepfather, who now live on a private development and own a luxury car. She hoovers the AstroTurf lawn, he returns from a game of golf. They pass through a rainbow, while Jamie Oliver, the god of social mobility, looks down. They are guilty of sin, just like Adam and Eve in Masaccio's The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (c. 1425). To the right a dinner party is just starting. Tim's girlfriend's parents and guests toast the new arrival.

The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal, 2012

Tim is relaxing with his family in the kitchen of his large, rural (second) home. His business partner (in yellow) has just told him that he is now an extremely wealthy man, as they have sold their software business to Richard Branson. On the table is a still life demonstrating the cultural bounty of his affluent lifestyle. To the left, his parents-in-law read and his elder child plays on the rug. To the right, Tim dangles his baby while his wife tweets.

This image includes references to three paintings of The Annunciation by Carlo Crivelli (the vegetables), Matthis Grunewald (his colleague's expression) and Robert Campin (the jug of lilies). The convex mirror and discarded shoes are reminders of that great pictorial display of wealth and status The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) by Jan van Eyck.

The Upper Class at Bay, 2012
Tim Rakewell and his wife are now in their late forties and their children are grown. They stroll like Mr and Mrs Andrews in Thomas Gainsborough's famous portrait of the landed gentry, (c.1750) in the grounds of their mansion in the Cotswolds. They are new money; they can never become upper-class in their lifetime. In the light of the sunset, they watch the old aristocratic stag with its tattered tweed hide being hunted down by the dogs of tax, social change, upkeep and fuel bills. The old landowning breed is dying down. Tim has his own problems: as a 'fat cat' he has attracted the ire of an 'Occupy-style' protest movement who camp outside his house. The protestor silhouetted between the stag's antlers refers to paintings of the vision of St Hubert, who converted from the leisured life of a nobleman on seeing the vision of a crucifix above the head of a stag.

Lamentation, 2012

The scene is the aftermath of a car accident in an intersection near a retail park. Tim lies dead in the arms of a stranger. His glamorous second wife stands stunned and blood stained amidst the wreckage of his Ferrari. To the right, paramedics prepare to remove his body. To the left, police and fire fighters record and clear the crash scene. Onlookers take photos with their camera phones to download on the internet. His dog lies dead. The contents of his wife's expensive handbag spill out over a copy of Hello magazine that features her and Tim on the cover.

At the bottom of Rogier van der Weyden's Lamentation, which inspired this image, is a skull: I have substituted it with a smashed smartphone, which refers back to the first tapestry in the series, where Tim reaches for his mother's phone. This scene also echoes the final painting of Hogarth's A Rake's Progress (1733) where Tom Rakewell dies naked in The Madhouse.


Grayson Perry's commentary on each tapestry was taken from the information given out by the gallery.


  1. I very much enjoyed both the television programme and seeing the pieces themselves at the Royal Academy summer exhibition a couple of years ago. I find that Grayson Perry always seems to have something of interest and thought-provoking to say. Although superficially disappointed with the quality of the material finish of the work, I find the commentary to be profound and important.

    1. I totally agree with you Olga. I find Perry an incredibly interesting person: he is obviously very bright and someone who thinks about things deeply and is able to communicate his ideas very well. I am always interested in what he has to say. I missed the television programme and only managed to see the one about the upper class but it's on my (ever so long) list of things to do. As for the tapestries themselves I would go further than you - I don't find them aesthetically pleasing in the least, but like you say, it's a very important work and a fascinating account of our society and in that sense it's extremely important.

  2. Thanks! Hopefully this means you made it to the end without falling asleep!

    Offer Waterman & Co.

  3. I really enjoyed the exhibition. I have a lot of respect for Grayson Perry. Thanks for your comment.