BATH, England — Train to Bath today, a somnolent West Country spa town set down in a bowl of hills, famous for its honey-colored Georgian squares, streets, and circuses where, in spring and summer, tourists slouch along in their sneakers, consumed by sartorial dreams of long gone Regency beaux and belles.
Not so much on a misty, chilly day in January, though. Today’s its all chattery, street-corner huddles of students from the University of Bath’s Virgil Building (once the local police station), the odd street cleaner, and quick, dangerous overflights of opportunistic pigeons.
Something really is happening here today though! Not since the Romans opened the thermal springs a couple of millennia back has there been such a rush of press eager to catch a glimpse of a celebrity at the local Holburne Museum. Who’s here then?
It’s Grayson, Grayson Perry, England’s celebrated transvestite potter, just arrived back from somewhere very far, to talk to us all about his new exhibition: Grayson Perry: the Pre-Therapy Years. Why here though?
The Holburne Museum has always been in love with the past. As you ascend the stairs to the temporary exhibition galleries, you see an oil painting (c.1705) of that young, sweet-faced spinettist Garton Orme – he must be all of 10 or 11 years of age – gorgeously costumed in blue, by Jonathan Richardson the Elder. He’s turned towards us, in his ‘high-heeled shoes proper for a gentleman.’ A little later in life, he got into serious debt and murdered his wife. (Some things remain the same.) Or, a little higher up the stairs, the Sanderson Children show off their prosperity in ‘Vandyck costumes.’
But today we are trying to get away from all this pastness. In fact, a shot of dangerous modernity is on the cards. Grayson’s here, on the top landing, dressed as his alter ego Claire, with the grinning museum director beside him, engulfed by cameras and booms and giant gray feather-dusters swinging here and there, to such an infuriating extent that mere footplodders clutching pen and notebook can barely get a look in, and in fact find themselves being elbowed aside, because they are clearly preventing the best possible photographic opportunity that Grayson would present this morning…
So I try to look past him, to the Timeline on the wall behind, which gives us some key dates and events in his life and ours, from which I excerpt in order to give a tiny flavor:
Born 1960, Chelmsford, Essex
April 1963, contracts measles, names Teddy Bear Alan Measles; Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers ‘I have a dream’ speech
1998 Begins psychotherapy sessions, which last six years; Google is founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin […]
The surprise today is how demure and soberly self-contained Grayson looks these days. The green eye shadow hasn’t changed, but the cardigan is gray. No crinolines. No pink balloons. The show itself, he tells us, is all about the maker that he was before he became as famous as he is now, before he won the Turner Prize in 2003. It’s the crude, raw stuff that he made at evening classes after he’d finished art college, the stuff that got sold, and then disappeared into private collections.
Where is it all now though? That question hung in the air, and gave the museum director a bright idea of his own – which would lead to this eye-catching, crowd-puller of a show. Should an open call go out? Yes! There were 150 responses! Much of the best — or the worst — of that cull is back here now, and Grayson feels touched to see it again. There’d been no records to speak of. He was such a lousy photographer in those days.
It’s also the work, he reminds us — and this is very important — of The Pre-Therapy Years. Once upon a time Grayson was very fucked up, very messed up, very angry, very confused. Now he’s not so confused because he’s had those six years of therapy, and you can never have enough therapy, he instructs us (mildly because, being post-therapy, he’s pretty well lost that nervy edge) because there’s always more dark beyond the dark. Discuss.
So we and the camera-bearers – who advance in front of him, semi-crouched, as if stalking some jungle beast – follow him, tripping over each other, mildly aggressive through our excessive politeness, all trying, desperately trying, to get half a look in, at this pot or other, as Grayson walks between the tightly wedged stacks of plinths topped by plexiglass boxes, regimented in rows, full of the spitty stuff of his youthfulness, prompted to reminisce by many softball questions from the director. It goes on for an hour or so.
Grayson is indefatigable on the subject of himself – always has been. He wants to hear himself talk about himself. He’s very comfortable being as famous as he is. He always wanted everyone to know him as Grayson. Just Grayson.
He’s good copy too. (We say that to each other, later, over the sandwiches, in the green room.) It’s always so relaxing knowing that you don’t have to think much because someone’s else’s words are always so quotable and to the point. After all, he was there, wasn’t he? He made all these wonky pots based on Classical Chinese originals or other kinds of originals. He added all these nastily provocative words, these fuck-you-mate transfers. He added the swastikas. You could order stuff like that in batches from any pottery factory in Stoke-upon-Trent. What is more, he wants these pots to be as imperfect as they are, imperfect as forms, that is. That’s the point: he’s imperfect. They’re imperfect. We’re imperfect. The only slight difference is that we’re us, and he’s Grayson.
Then it’s lunch.
Having not seen as much as I might have wished to see, I go back upstairs after two triangles of sandwich and half a cup of soup. I’m trying to get Grayson out of my head a bit so that I can look at the work itself. I’m trying to decide whether the fact that it is knowingly imperfect also means that it’s bad work. But isn’t that thought almost beside the point because what sells this show is the fact that it is Grayson: the Prequel? No one gives a shit if it’s all shit or all about shit. Nor ought they. Grayson’s big enough for us all to want to see it because he’s practically a national institution. We want to know everything about him. And he wants to share it with us.
All this random rumination represents a movement in the direction of the exercising of critical judgment. I’m trying to set to work with my mind. Unfortunately, I’m thwarted pretty soon. The BBC are here, with their noisy chatter and their apparatus. I have to leave. Grayson’s back in the room again, in his black patent leather shoes and so much else about his physical presence that I might have described had I not been given a mild warning by the editor.
Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years continues at the Holburne Museum (Great Pulteney Street, Bath, England) through May 25. Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years (2020) by Chris Stephens, Catrin Jones, and Andrew Wilson is published by Thames and Hudson.