Grayson Perry Discloses The Truth About A House For Essex

Grayson Perry

Artlyst has travelled to Wrabness in Essex to meet Grayson Perry at the site of his latest project, ‘A House for Essex’. At once an architectural form and a particularly personal artwork for Perry, which has also created a new landmark for the village, close to the Essex coast. The building is a truly original and provocative collaboration between FAT Architecture and the artist, which is what one would expect from Grayson Perry after all, yet the work began with the creation of a rather touching poem detailing the life of a very ordinary and at the same time, very special individual.

Having been described in the press as little more than a ‘conceptual holiday home’, and a ‘gingerbread house’ – the locals didn’t consider the plans for Perry’s house to be a fairytale – unless they’d been written by the brothers Grimm – but after a degree of charm and perhaps more than a modicum of explanation, the residents of the beautiful Wrabness were on-side – once they realised that this unique work of art was about something very close to their hearts.

Perry then unveiled the work and its interior to London’s art journalists to reveal the real reason for the existence of the work. The house and its contents concerns the story of a ‘real Essex woman’ through an elaborate narrative existing via works of art inside the house, and totems and tile designs on the exterior of what is in fact, the artist’s ‘pilgrimage chapel’.

This is a cross between Hansel and Gretel and a Russian Orthodox church, an eccentric dedication to a saint – in this case a secular one by the name of Julie Cope – the collective works give expression to her fictional life through both art and architecture. But this character, an archetypal symbol of the feminine core of Essex is perhaps a cypher, and an expression of something very personal to Grayson Perry himself.

Grayson was kind enough to talk to Artlyst about this important endeavour, which might well be the most complicated and intimate work of art that the artist has accomplished during his career thus far.

Artlyst: “The choice of ‘Julie from Essex’ came after identifying the site, finding the location for an experience?”

Grayson Perry: “Yes, I remember going to the office with a list of names. What I’d researched was: what were common names in 1953 – which is when she was born – and I had a shortlist of the ones that I liked, and my top one was Karen, but Charles [Holland, architect] said no, I can’t deal with someone with the name Karen… for his own personal reasons (!) [they went through a list of ex-girlfriends names and no one had gone out with a ‘Julie’ so that was OK] So Julie became the answer, so that was fine – and bang! – we did that. But the absolute nub, starting-point, raison d’etre of the entire project was a chapel, because I’m always interested in that sort of thing, I wanted to create a building that had a narrative and a meaning. Because I think when we focus on something specific other stuff happens around it. If you go into vague spiritual experience that’s what it remains, whereas if you concentrate on something, you have the spiritual experience out of the corner of your eye, so I wanted to make it very specific. It’s a shrine to the idea of Julie, the ideas and the themes, and the history, so that’s what it is.”

Image: A House For Essex, exterior, P A Black © Artlyst 2015

A: “So Julie ends her fictional life by being martyred by a scooter?”

GP: “I wanted to be able to put it in the house! Often with ideas when you’re working as an artist you start with the image, you justify it… if you came up with a good idea about an interpretation I would just agree with it – [laughter] – post-rationalisation is one of my better skills! [laughter] in churches often you have ships hanging up – votive offerings – she could’ve been run over by a car but it wouldn’t have fitted in!”

A: “The scooter is like her cross but without the body on it?”

GP: “Yes! EXACTLY, yes. It’s a symbol. In the tapestry upstairs she’s got it on her charm bracelet, a little moped.”

A: “Regarding your starting point for the project, your poem of the life of this fictional Julie, the every-woman of Essex, you also mention yourself in that poem with a reference to the ‘dangly-earringed potter and the corduroy lecturer’?”

GP: “Do I!? No I don’t I’m not in it! Ah yes, but that’s not me! I don’t wear dangly earrings! I haven’t got pierced ears! That was Julie’s neighbour in this terrace of workers cottages in the tapestry, and you can see that she’s got the nuclear power ‘no thanks’ sticker in the door and the wind chime, that’s the sign that they’re living there, and the dangly-earringed potter was next door! and the ‘corduroy lecturer’ on film! – but I’m not there yet!”

Image: A House For Essex, interior, © Jack Hobhouse 2015

A: “So after a difficult start, is this going to be your first and last ‘house’?”

GP: “Certainly the experience has taught me something about how I would approach it. Now I’m here I could say that I wouldn’t mind having a go another time, but that would be easy to say, the amount of work in it…!”

A: “Creating the individual pieces for the inside of the house, like the tapestries was an easier part of the process?”

GP: “Yes but I still have to draw them though! I still have to sit there in front of my computer screen – normally they take between four and six weeks for each to design.”

A: “So the house came first and you created the work to go in situ at the end of that process?”

GP: “Pretty early on I knew what I wanted, I mean we had the basic shape and I thought about what art would work in it in terms of the actual physical amount, and very early on I knew what I was making for it in terms of the amount of artwork. In fact I had to scale back some things or I would’ve been here forever.”

A: “So your very beginning, your starting point was the poem even before the house?”

GP: “I always learn on the job. That’s my absolute, and normal rule. I’m not an over-plotter-outer. Everything was kicked off at the same time, but the poem was very important to get that ahead, because that was informing all of the iconography, and the story. So I had written that and finished it by about the first year of production, and then I just pecked at it. I was adding lines right up to the end.”

A: “So would you say that the poem is in fact the soul of the house?”

GP: “Yeah! if there’s a religious text it’s that, I wanted to have a kind of ‘everyday epic’ – that’s what it is – I’m not making myself out to be a poet but I was quite pleased with the poem in the end. I wanted it to be touching. In the program we use the poem a bit at the end and it does work.”

Image: A House For Essex, detail, P A Black © Artlyst 2015

A: “Was your choice of materials for the outside of the house a decision made early on, or did that evolve with the work?”

GP: “It was just the precision thing: it’s something I’m not used to. To make those tiles to an exact size for me was very scary, because ceramic shrinks, warps and changes. We batted ideas back and forth, and it came to copper [for the choice of a roofing material] and Mark, the director, he says ‘that’ll be stolen before it’s even on the roof!’ [laughter] because it was at that period when a lot of metal was being stolen, and he said please don’t do it in copper! But then Charles did the research on it and we thought gold! That’s good! I’ve never seen a building with a brass roof before like that, and it just worked. We were holding up glaze samples asking ‘is that going to work?’.”

A: “And the oft-mentioned gingerbread reference?”

GP: “Yes the gingerbread thing, I call it ‘the gingerbread house – but by Pixar’! [laughter] because it’s too crisp! When I first saw it and they had the portacabins and all the builders were in them, I took some photos and I was showing one of the builders the photo I’d just taken, and he said ‘oh yeah, that’s the computer rendition isn’t it, coz we had that on the wall!’ And when we compared the two, they were exactly alike!”

Image: A House For Essex, exterior, P A Black © Artlyst 2015

A: “So with the view looking out onto the estuary and the industrial landscape in the distance, this becomes a part of the narrative of the house, part of Julie’s story?”

GP: “Yes, [the house] responds to the landscape but maybe in a different way – the shape responds to it in the narrative, [for example] the light on the roof is like a beacon, it echoes the shape that sometimes you see on top of buoys – if you go to Harwich there’s a kind of store area where all the buoys are kept – like a surreal sculptural graveyard! They’re huge! some of them, there’s a whole compound full of buoys. We acknowledged the sea.”

A: “So the other totemic object, is it a Viking boat, or snails?”

GP: “Yeah, ‘Viking-boat-snails’ [laughter] yes it’s a Viking boat! The wheel on top I thought had a bit of a Buddhist vibe, and then you have a bit of the moped wheel, like a tyre pattern as well, and then the boat. Rob, Julie’s husband: he was into Celtic mythology, and stone circles, and also it’s got a little bit of ‘Rohan’ from Lord of the Rings!, so it’s playing on those things definitely!”

A: “So do tell me, is there anything personal in the Julie story – in that it’s also from your era and where you came from isn’t it?”

GP: “Well she’s a little bit older than me, but she’s younger than my mother. There’s bits of my mother, and there’s bits of my life woven into it.”

A: “So you recognise the story?”

GP: “Totally, yes.”

Words: Grayson Perry with Paul Black. Photos: P A Black © Artlyst 2015 all rights reserved