Creativity? It’s a rainbow pack of plastic toys

Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years has just opened at the Holburne Museum, Bath. The exhibition has instantly put this little known art collection on the international map as Andrea Marechal Watson discovers.

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Claire in a bus stop, courtesy of Andrew Gibson

There are quite a lot of words and phrases that Grayson Perry doesn’t like. Spiritualism – the word – “makes him heave”. DJ is another but he does not explain further. As for developers who love a ‘Vibrant Cultural Quarter’: “KNOCK IT DOWN! ” he says. Top of the list at today’s press conference, because a journalist has unwisely asked, is Creativity.

“If you Google the word creativity you will get a rainbow pack of plastic toys. It is a myth that we are born fully formed with creativity,” he says, adding that it puts a lot of pressure on young people to assume they are born creatives. I suspect that there are a lot more words on the Grayson Index Prohibitorum and that you might need to tread carefully but no, he never seems to lose his humour and humanity (am I allowed to use this term?) and talks constantly with impish delight about his troubled early life and his ideas and work and puts everyone at their ease. Perhaps it’s all the therapy. For something like eight years after his marriage to Philippa – herself a therapist – Perry underwent treatment for a variety of obsessions and neuroses many of which are played out in this latest exhibition, The Pre-Therapy Years.


Now in Our Green and Pleasant Land (Ye Dear Olde Bugger), 1984 The Thimblestitch and Bramble Collection

The background to the show has already generated plenty of publicity for the Holburne Museum in Bath, home to an odd eclectic collection of the 18th century collector Sir William Holburne which includes most notably three paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Younger.

Two years ago, following talks with the Holborne’s director Chris Stephens, former curator of Modern British Art at Tate Britain, Perry launched an appeal on the BBC’s One Show for pieces that he had made between around 1983 and 1994, asking the public if they remembered buying anything from him or his alter ego, Claire, around about that time and would they check their mantle pieces please. “I’m not great at photography or record keeping” says Perry. The public responded enthusiastically, enabling the Holburne Museum to devote an entire floor to these recaptured ceramics.

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For a small museum that wants to get better known there can hardly have been a better way to do it because Perry is today no longer the unknown biker from Essex but a vibrant cultural icon. Oops.

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Meaningless Symbols, 1993, Collection of Mark & Debra Eden

Once he had moved to “posh London galleries” – in other words his Mayfair agent Victoria Miro – his work changed but here you can see raw Perry, pre-therapy, obsessive, angry and kinky which he jokes should help bring a younger audience to the museum. “You get to see lot of willies.” And some castration.

He was “working things out in those days” and the dark corners of his subconscious are explored in these exhibits. He remembers the first pot he made at age 8 in school, and the rubber smocks that they had to wear. “That set me going, you could say I made my first pot in a state of proto-erotic excitement,” he laughs.

After art school at Portsmouth Perry headed for London and lived in squats, joining the Sixties throwback Neo Naturalist movement and after some indecision about what to do beginning adult education classes in pottery at the former Central School because it was virtually free. “You paid by the pound weight of the pot.” His perverted imagery nearly got him thrown out, ironically not by the teacher but the other students.

For all this, Perry says that pottery was a safer place for kinky erotica because the vice squad were very unlikely to raid a pottery exhibition whereas with photography it was the reverse.

“I like to go the dark side,” he says. “We are all fetishistic. I’ve done bestaility and infantilism.” The Telegraph even accused him of using paedophile imagery when he won the Turner Prize but he refutes this firmly.

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I am the Myth Maker, 1989, Private Collection

Moving through the displays which are grouped thematically beginning with funeral urns (“Urns were big sellers but I got bored with them”) Perry comes to a case which reflects some of his feelings about the countryside around Essex where he grew up and which he describes as like an “awful, a bleak garage forecourt near London.”

Next to a display of pots with what he calls working class motifs – one a supermarket trolley – he says: “I’ve no clue what was going on in my mind when I making these pots but I was very aware of the socio-economic background.”

Perry was exploring transgenderism long before we got to LGBT and its now extensive ramifications. For this show he is dressed not in the outlandish costumes of Claire but as a dowdy middle class middle aged pottery teacher. Post therapy, he explains, he has come to stop worrying whether he is in the wrong body or is just a bloke who likes to wear dresses.

Perry has never ever sat at a potting wheel. His pots are made using the coil technique. Once built, he inscribes figures and motifs as well as lots of lettering using old typesetting characters. “It was to give people something to read so they would stay longer. There wasn’t the visual culture we have today back in the 80s.”

There’s an interesting dissonance in his view between the medium of pottery – with its humble, benign nature – and the complex and violent ideas he uses it to explore. He talks of creating things that are “a mumbing veil over the ramblings of my subconscious.”

Pottery, the lowest of the crafts in the traditional art hierarchies, has certainly been helped to clamber up this false scale thanks to Perry. Stoke-on-Trent must love the man who pulled pottery back from the brink and has exhibited his pots across the world with pieces in many major galleries, including the British Museum. The pots now command staggering prices – up to £600,000 at auction. Yet some early pieces are not all that good. Mishaps are common in this medium at the beginner level.

“I never tried to fake being inept as some people thought – I had to point out to them that I was genuinely not very good,” says Perry in relation to these kiln failures. “There are much better potters but sometimes perfection is unloveable, and rather dead.”

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Self Portrait Cracked and Warped, 1985, Private Collection

Success has happened slowly. Perry was 43 when he won the Turner Prize in 2003 and more than a decade later delivered his magnificent Reith Lectures, called collectively Playing to the Gallery and based on ideas expressed in his book of the same title. Two years ago he was asked to co-curate the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition which he called “great fun.”

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“It all goes very fast. You see 18,000 works in four days. There were an awful lot of sploshy pallet knife abstracts. The other category that seemed popular was what I call Ikea triptychs – three paintings designed I presume to hang behind your sofa that I suspect were inspired by what people see in furniture shops.”

Perry says that one of the things he won’t do is employ others to make work for him, and particularly now that tapestries have given him a new momentum, his output of pottery is much lower, not more than 15 pieces a year with prices that begin at around £200,000 if you are lucky.

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Sales Pitch, 1987, Private Collection

Whoever bought a rather badly made plate called Sales Pitch in the 1980s was either lucky or astute or both. Inscribed across the centre are the words: MY SUCCESS IS GUARANTEED. IT’S ONLY A MATTER OF TIME.

Until May 25th at the Holburne Museum, Bath, UK