Earlier this week I took a break from words and went down to Sunderland Museum to see Grayson Perry’s tapestries The Vanity of Small Differences. Eye-poppingly colourful and full of wit and insight, they were definitely worth the trip. Based on Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress, six large pieces tell the story of Tim Rakewell, a working class lad who rises through the ranks of society – propelled by a mixture of flight, education, inter-marriage, work and luck – only to end up dead by the side of the road after crashing his Ferrari, his glamorous second wife looking on in shock.
This detail from the penultimate tapestry shows Tim and his first wife on their country estate, still struggling with discontent. Grayson Perry is quoted as saying:
The tapestries tell the story of class mobility, for I think nothing has as strong an influence on our aesthetic taste as the social class in which we grow up. I am interested in the politics of consumerism and the history of popular design but for this project I focus on the emotional investment we make in the things we choose to live with, wear, eat, read or drive. Class and taste run deep in our character – we care. This emotional charge is what draws me to a subject.
Do go and see this show – after Sunderland it tours to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. You can also watch the BAFTA-winning television series In the Best Possible Taste that inspired and documented the process here. I’m looking forward to hearing Grayson Perry’s Reith Lectures in the autumn on the role of the artist in society.
Since my visit to Kew Gardens I’ve been thinking a lot about class, power and privilege – the way it’s so much part of the history of Botanic Gardens, and continues to be so. The fact that the entrance fee for an adult at Kew is £16, even though it receives a large amount of public funding, is disappointing to say the least. Seeing Grayson Perry’s tapestries cost nothing – thanks to the support of the Art Fund and various other organisations. And so tastes are made…