`The best artists can come from anywhere'

15th August 2014 at 01:00
Cross-dresser. Artist. Award-winning television presenter. All-round good egg. Grayson Perry is rapidly becoming a national treasure - and now he's fighting to make sure art education isn't just for the elite. Helen Ward meets him

National treasure status is often bestowed upon the unexpected. No one can quite predict who the British people will take to their hearts. But few such rises have been more extraordinary than that of beloved artist Grayson Perry.

After winning the Turner Prize in 2003 for his beautiful, disturbing pottery and promptly grabbing the headlines by collecting the award in a shiny, pink Little Bo Peep-style frock, Perry quickly went mainstream. He has since made a Bafta-winning documentary series, curated a highly successful exhibition at the British Museum and even appeared on BBC One prime-time panel show Have I Got News for You.

"I'm a great believer in making art as popular as possible, even though that can be anathema to many people in the art world," he said at the recent launch of the Art Everywhere exhibition, for which posters of great artworks are being displayed on bus stops and billboards around the UK until 31 August.

We meet at his studio in Islington, North London, which is surrounded by a fairy-tale-esque high brick wall. He is not wearing a dress. He greets me at the gate and we cross the yard to the one-storey building. Inside, the large white space is mostly empty. There is some furniture: a wooden table with chairs and a sofa covered in a tapestry sample.

Perry sits at the table, unshaven and dressed in an orange lumberjack fleece jacket, a turquoise T-shirt and dark blue trousers. He is halfway through signing a stack of 1,000 paper inserts printed with the words "Playing to the Gallery" - the title of his new book, based on his widely praised 2013 Reith Lectures.

He was the first visual artist to be invited to deliver the prestigious BBC lectures, an annual series in which philosophers, historians, economists and poets have spoken about their world and their work. "This must be the first time that a cross-dresser has been the lecturer," said host Sue Lawley as she introduced him.

"Well, as far as we know," Perry replied.

He chose to talk about modern society's relationship with art: who decides what art is valuable, the art world's complicated relationship with beauty and how he became an artist. Wrapped up in this was a consideration of the changing nature of art education. Perry pondered why art should be taught and its role in helping children to find meaning in their experiences.

His hugely popular lectures were praised in The Independent for showcasing his "needle-sharp observations concerning the fickleness of taste and swerving, self-deprecating humour".

Perry, now 54, was born in Chelmsford, Essex. His childhood was overshadowed by family breakdown when he was 4 and an unhappy relationship with his stepfather. He summed it up on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs: "In many ways I had a normal childhood. A bit of divorce, a bit of low-grade mental illness, a bit of violence. These things, lots of people living in Britain today have that."

The young Grayson developed an elaborate fantasy world ruled by his teddy bear, Alan Measles, a "benign dictator" who led the outlaws hiding in a wooded valley (his bedroom) and ordered Grayson to make planes and cars for him.

Perry initially did well at school, first at the tiny local primary in the village of Woodham Ferrers and then at King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford. But, at 15, his grades plummeted as puberty hit. He moved to his father's house, where his cross-dressing was discovered when his stepsister read his diary and asked her mother, "What's a transvestite?" After being kicked out, he moved back in with his mother and stepfather. He tried to join the army at 16 but the recruiting officer "bounced him back". Then a teacher suggested art college.

"I kind of relaxed. I thought, that sounds easy," Perry says today, laughing loudly. "Art was always something I loved doing, that I had a facility for, but I never in my wildest dreams thought of it as a career - probably very wisely."

Perry is now one of the most successful artists working in Britain. His tapestries sell for up to pound;100,000 and his pots for perhaps as much as pound;120,000. But although he has sold work ever since leaving art college, his career didn't take off until his late thirties.

Patrick Brill, a celebrated artist who works under the name Bob and Roberta Smith, suggests that Perry has remained down to earth because his success came later in life. "He is a lovely man," Brill says. "He is not afraid to splurge his personality all over the media and to stand for something.

"What he stands for is accessibility and the idea that everybody has a culture. The art world likes to think that culture is its preserve. But people like Grayson clearly say that is not the case and everybody has a culture. I think that is why he is so popular. He stands for this idea that anyone can do it.

"He is very committed behind the scenes to supporting arts organisations and keeping them going," Brill continues. "There are only a handful of big-name artists who do that. Everybody else is quietened by the art market - they don't want to be seen as political."

For the masses

Ensuring that artistic culture is not just the preserve of the elite has an obvious starting point: education.

This is something that Perry is passionate about. For the past few years, the art world has been paying attention to what is happening in schools. In England, the advent of the English Baccalaureate (EBac) - a measure that ranks schools by how many students take GCSEs in English, maths, science, a foreign language and either history or geography - has led to a decline in the numbers of children studying arts subjects.

Perry was driven to action, writing an article in The Guardian proclaiming his concerns: "It is the children from poorer homes who will be disproportionately deprived of exposure to culture. The idea that art will somehow look after itself - that society will breed untaught geniuses - is rubbish. We'll end up with a cultural sector even more skewed towards the privately educated."

Computing has since been added to the EBac but no arts subjects have joined it. When choosing a career, art doesn't have the economic pulling power of maths or science; the thriving creative economy doesn't translate into graduate earnings on an individual level. Being able to draw is simply not seen to be as necessary as being able to cook - a skill that is being added to the national curriculum this year. And perhaps uniquely among school subjects, the word "art" can be a joke. If you try something that doesn't work, a common retort is, "Oh, it's `art'."

So what use is art? What should we teach our children? Perry twirls his spectacles and looks at the ceiling, thinking. "What I struggle with," he says, "is the nature of art now. Some art is almost indistinguishable from political protest. Art is finding a space to make itself relevant in a world where traditional painting is a kitsch craft activity.

"Historically, a big part of art education was teaching the `grammar' of drawing, the skills you needed so you could move on to the `poetry'. But now it's difficult to know what skills to teach," he adds.

One role of art education, he thinks, is to address the images created by our modern, internet-driven culture. Schools must help children to become visually literate adults. "If art lessons can be a space where you are confronted with the need to be a creative in a broad sense, and if art lessons can encourage children to think about the issue of [visual] culture in the 21st century, then I think that should be compulsory," Perry says.

As he continues to twirl his spectacles, he adds a practical note: "But also being able to control your pen or pencil on paper is a useful skill to have - I use it every day.

"There is no easy answer. I'm wary of a fluffy, traditional version. But drawing is important, visual culture is very important. I just don't deify art."

He took up pottery, after all, partly because it was naff. In his autobiography, co-written with Wendy Jones, he recalls living in the basement flat of 1980s pop star Marilyn's squat in Camden, North London. Perry aspired to a glamorous life. He went to legendary nightclub Taboo. He took part in performance art with the Neo Naturists. Then a friend invited him to join her at a pottery evening class. There were no preconceptions about a career, it was just mucking around at something he liked. Soon he was going to several sessions and churning out two or three pieces each week.

Untended talent

After a year, Perry's work was included in an exhibition at a little gallery opposite the British Museum. He made some money and so kept going. He also credits his wife Philippa, whom he met in his late twenties, with supporting him. They have a daughter, Flo, who has just graduated from Durham University with a degree in chemistry ("Daughter, educated, tick," Perry tweeted, using his Twitter handle @alan_measles). And therapy helped: it gave him, he says, the ability to change what needed changing, to become aware of what helped him, personally, to work.

Perry points out that when he was 15 he didn't know what artists did. He remembers there being one painting in the house - a print of a tea clipper that came free with washing powder. "It's not necessarily a disadvantage," he says, "as long as you go to art college. But if you don't know what artists do and that prevents you from getting to art college, that is bad.

"There's no shortage of people wanting to go to art college. The problem is there is probably a shortage of the right people. The best artists are very bright, very clever, and that is the tragedy of it because they can come from anywhere and the forces are so lined up against people from less advantaged backgrounds from Day 1.

"They don't even know art exists, because they don't talk about it around the dinner table, because they don't even sit at the dinner table," he continues.

"If you ask me, working-class people should be over-represented at art college. I'm now a member of the Royal Academy [of Arts] and they're an interesting cross-section. They tend to be old - I'm at the young end - and I would venture to say the majority are working-class people. They are the legacy of art education past. I don't think it is going to be the case in the future."

Resources to draw out your pupils' artistic talents


A comprehensive introduction to contemporary art, featuring the work of artists such as Damien Hirst (left) and Tracey Emin (right). bit.ly21stCenturyArt

This time-saving resource matches artists and famous works of art to popular themes. bit.lyThemesInArt

? A bumper pack of collage ideas and techniques to inspire your art lessons. bit.lyCollageTechnique

? A guide to how art, craft and design can enhance children's enjoyment and achievement. bit.lyArtCraftDesign

Encourage younger students to learn about colour families while painting and creating collages. Plenary questions guide peer- and self-evaluation. bit.lyCollectingColours


Ensure your students can define key art terms such as "texture", "tone" and "perspective" with this illustrated dictionary. bit.lyArtDictionary

These questions and accompanying vocabulary will help students to formulate critical and analytical responses to artworks. bit.lyArtFramework

Created for an A-level photography course, this detailed introduction to portraiture covers the history of the form and how it can be used to convey meaning. bit.lyPortraitOverview

Develop students' drawing skills by encouraging them to try out a variety of shading techniques, in order to create texture in their work. bit.lyTextureTechniques

Guide students through creating a portrait in the style of four artistic movements: Impressionism, Pop Art, Fauvism and Pointillism. bit.lyPortraitStyles

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