A life's tapestry unravels

Liz Jenkinson visits a Grayson Perry exhibition.

In 'The Vanity of Small Differences', Turner Prize winning and media savvy contemporary artist Grayson Perry considers issues of class in modern Britain through six large tapestries and associated sketches. 

The collection consists of six very large intricate technicolour tapestries, presented with complementary work cited to have inspired the pieces and sketches. The series allows us to chart the life course of a fictional socially-mobile male protagonist, Tim Rakewell, throughout his lifespan. Perry argues that the work invites us to consider our attitudes to class and social position in contemporary Britain – particularly the concept of social mobility. The collection has echoes with folk art, renaissance paintings and religious tapestries. A Rake’s Progress, by 18th century English artist William Hogarth, is also cited by the artist as a pervasive influence in providing a structure to the narrative.

As a health psychologist my eye was drawn to the health disparities within the depictions of the Rakewells day-to-day lives. Working class life was painted as synonymous with health compromising behaviours. Tim Rakewell’s mother was shown smoking in an antenatal state whilst holding her baby, can of Red Bull and cigarettes at hand. Her newborn was presented with a football strip in a quasi-religious ceremony – suggesting both the aspirations and gendered expectations heaped upon the young. As Tim becomes socially mobile, thanks to a middle class university girlfriend and work in the technology industry, the trappings of middle class existence beckon and aspirations and expectations change. William Morris wallpaper and dinner parties are complemented by depictions of olive oil, wine and bruschetta, the family joining together to indulge in alcohol and a Waitrose-sourced bounty.

However, across the tableaus, we see Tim’s life unravel. At first he enjoys the spoils of his work, selling his company to Virgin for billions, marrying, having children and living in a stylish home decorated with the ephemera of middle class living – mugs which feature Penguin book covers, a carefully placed politically aware tea towel and a doting retired well-dressed grandmother on hand to help with the baby.  But life twists and turns, and the final scenes show a second, much younger and vainer wife, tax evasion charges and an untimely and gruesome death.

Upon my visit, I was impressed with the ambitious scope and scale of the works, and the arresting technicolour images presented. Themes were accessible, yet wry and subtle in places. Clever piece of texts are hidden in a corners – witty references that you might only find on second or third viewing. However, issues around class and taste were presented here with a broad brush… whilst working class white lives undoubtedly need their stories voiced, there was little here to warm to. Perry himself refers to these as stereotypes, but also argues that they are grounded in the realities he grew up with and viewed in his research for the works. He documented this journey in the Channel 4 documentary, All in the Best Possible Taste, with these stories inspiring the tapestries that were ultimately developed.

Ultimately, I found the main exhibition to be an accomplished appropriation of tapestry and embroidery techniques which told a compelling, colourful tale. Nevertheless, I was left wondering whether this collection could have painted a more sensitive picture of the nuances of class, taste and social mobility. The exhibition in Bristol closed with a ‘All in the Best Possible Taste’ screening and here the complexities of class, taste and social mobility were explored in participants own words, largely in their own homes. I found that this enhanced my enjoyment and allowed a deeper, more socio-psychological reading of the tapestry collection with reference to those who inspired the work.

Perry’s strength is shining a spotlight on everyday experiences with a wry and witty lens, and in using traditional media in contemporary artworks. This exhibition does not disappoint, but is perhaps best enjoyed alongside the original narratives of the lived experiences of those groups he seeks to represent. 

- Dr Liz Jenkinson is a chartered psychologist, and Senior Lecturer and Joint Programme Leader, MSc Health Psychology, at the University of the West of England (UWE), Bristol.

- The Vanity of Small Differences is on at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery until 24 June, and then moves to both Scunthorpe and Blackpool. 

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