When it comes to living British artists with popular appeal, they do not get much bigger than Grayson Perry. Crowds are currently booking by timed slot for his retrospective at the National Galleries of Scotland (Royal Scottish Academy) in Edinburgh. The top ticket price of £19—perhaps a record in Scotland—is deterring no one. This critic, turning up first thing on a Sunday morning, hoping for a bit of peace and quiet, was disappointed.
Not disappointed by the show, however, which looks great. The spacious Georgian rooms, designed by William Henry Playfair in the 1820s, are at their best with big works in them and accommodate well a mixture of wall-based and free-standing pieces. Perry’s ceramics, sculptures, prints and large-scale tapestries could have been made for this space.
By coincidence, one of this summer’s other most popular exhibitions has also taken place north of the border: in Glasgow, visitors queued to see the Banksy survey Cut and Run at the city’s Gallery of Modern Art. The show was open until 11pm nightly, and till 5am at weekends, to accommodate different types of crowd.
Interestingly, the two exhibitions chose similar approaches. The commentary for each was created by the artist in a direct, confiding tone. In different ways, both artists prioritise commenting on the contemporary world in their work and have a subversive energy, although they have now, to varying degrees, been embraced by the mainstream.
One key difference is that Perry’s core subject is himself. It is hard to imagine Perry’s work without Grayson Perry—transvestite, TV personality, now Sir Grayson and self-proclaimed National Treasure (apparently, National Galleries of Scotland advised against this as a title for the show—after all, which nation?). He has worked closely with the curators Patrick Elliott and Tor Scott, and the interpretation, both in the exhibition and its catalogue, is in his voice. This show is determinedly not about art-historical evaluation. It is an artist telling his story of his work.
In the first room, which sets out the exhibition’s guiding principles, Perry’s presence is unignorable. The back wall is occupied by Reclining Artist (2017), a woodcut self-portrait of an androgynous, nude Perry in his studio, nearly three metres long. Next to that is the 2013 etching A Map of Days, which he describes as a “self-portrait as a walled town”. The making of maps, mind maps and self-portraits of different kinds runs throughout the show.
In fact, the largest work here, The Walthamstow Tapestry (2009), which is a gargantuan 15m long, is a kind of self-portrait. Inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry and the Seven Ages of Man, it charts a journey from birth to death through consumer brands. The design references William Morris (born in Walthamstow) but is ambitious and inventive, a kind of medieval-modern. Perry has a magpie mind and references widely, but always owns his influences up front.
The decision to start working in tapestry after his Turner Prize win in 2003 was a key shift in Perry’s practice. Working in ceramics has practical limitations of scale, based on the size of a kiln. In tapestry— designed in Photoshop, digitally woven—he could make work as big as he wanted. It changed the way his exhibitions looked and hooked him in to a narrative form that suited what he wanted to do.
His pots, however, remain central to the practice, increasingly sophisticated in technique as the years go on. They could be his best work, as they are more intimate, sardonic, spiky and subversive than the tapestries. In ceramics, he takes a pop at middle-class voyeurs and art world hypocrisy, provoking his audience (“Are you an art lover or a cock teaser?”) and his collectors. He once titled a show Super Rich Interior Decoration, and the irony was not lost on him when collectors bought it all the more.
Crafty culture crafting
In 2011, Perry curated an exhibition at the British Museum, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, with 135 objects from the collection and 30 works of his own. The cast-iron galleon he made as the title work for that show occupies pride of place here. It is hung with glass containers filled with liquid, representing the blood, sweat and tears of the unnamed craftspeople who made the precious artefacts of our culture. It feels as though it is with them that he allies himself most.
The other pivotal moment was when he made his first television documentary, 2005’s Why Men Wear Frocks, for Channel 4. As he went on to make programmes on Britishness, masculinity and class, his art developed a symbiotic relationship with his television work. The art sparked the TV, but the documentary work also fed back into his practice, making it more outward-looking, able to embrace bigger ideas.
In both art and television, he has a gift for speaking the language of ordinary people, for nailing cultural mores. In a large tapestry called Comfort Blanket (2014), he lists the things associated with Britishness that people might find comforting, from the Queen and the NHS to the Magna Carta and having a nice cup of tea. This is not a profound idea with hidden depths, but it does observe carefully and articulate precisely what people feel they already know.
His tapestry series on class, The Vanity of Small Differences (2012)—inspired by William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress (1732-34)—is strongest in its detail, laying bear the foibles of the middle-class: an Aga, mid-century Modern furniture, organic jam. In a similar way, he skewers the 1970s in his A House for Essex series: the moustache, the orange Ford Capri. These are stereotypes, but it is more than that. His audience recognises it all instinctively. People feel seen.
The last room is about Englishness. Giving a tour to the media before the show opened, Perry suggested that having the exhibition in Scotland gave him some welcome distance to examine the subject. Central, here, is the new tapestry Sacred Tribal Artefact (2023), which shows an ageing patriarchal lion handing over his tattered English flag to a young woman. He describes it as
“a heraldic depiction of an ancient country in a time of change”.
It should come as no surprise that this show is popular. It is colourful, fast-moving, visually impressive and occupies this grand, formal space with panache. It is not a show of hidden depths—what you get is what you see. However, if a retrospective is an opportunity to weigh up an artistic career, Perry’s tips the scales decisively, at least for this moment in time. What happens in the next few decades might be a different story. These works speak so clearly and specifically to this moment; I suspect that, for future generations, they will not be timeless masterpieces but—like the works that Perry explored in the British Museum—will need some translation in years to come.
What the other critics said
Smash Hits has divided the UK’s art writers. In The Times, Waldemar Januszczak praised the exhibition, particularly its ceramics, saying the show proved “you don’t have to be pious to be serious or ponderous to be deep”. Duncan Macmillan gave the show a five-star review in The Scotsman, particularly praising how it used the space, and comparing it to the Eduardo Paolozzi retrospective in the same rooms 40 years ago.
But Jonathan Jones was scathing in The Guardian, saying the art “relentlessly avoids poetry or depth” and accusing Perry of “throwing away his talent on the vanity of small amusements”.
Meanwhile, Alastair Sooke in The Telegraph described Perry’s referencing as “a hodgepodge of homage and imitation”.
• Grayson Perry: Smash Hits, National Galleries Scotland (Royal Scottish Academy), until 12 November
• Curators: Patrick Elliott with Tor Scott