A new exhibition at the Holburne Museum reunites ceramics from Grayson Perry’s earliest forays into the art world. It will re-introduce the explosive and creative works he made between 1982 and 1994. These ground-breaking ‘lost’ pots will be reunited for the first time to focus on the formative years of one of Britain’s most recognisable artists.
This show has been such a joy to put together, I’m really looking forward to seeing these early works again – Grayson Perry
The show (opening in January 2020) at The Holburne Museum, Bath is also remarkable for the fact that many of the 70 items on display have been crowd-sourced from across the UK, following a hugely successful appeal to the public in 2018.
Today, Perry – and his instantly-recognisable alter-ego, Claire – enjoys a reputation bordering on National Treasure status by virtue of his distinctive tapestry, collage and ceramic works – that often explore themes of gender, identity and social class – and his remarkable work as a witty social commentator on television and in print.
The Holburne exhibition will display the earliest works – pots, plates and sculptures – that first made Perry’s name and will shine a light on his experimentation and exploration of the potential of pottery to address radical issues and human stories. For art lovers, Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years represents a unique opportunity to enjoy the artist’s clever, playful and politically-engaged perspective on the world through several pieces, many of which have not been seen in public since they were first exhibited. Often challenging and explicit, these works reveal the early development of Perry’s distinctive voice that has established him as one of the most compelling commentators on contemporary society.
Explaining how the exhibition came together, its Curator Catrin Jones said: ‘When we proposed the exhibition, Grayson responded positively because, he said, “no one knows where those works are”. So, we asked the public and were overwhelmed by the response. What followed was an extraordinary process of rediscovery as we were contacted by collectors, enthusiasts and friends, who collectively hold over 150 of his early works.
Our first task was processing photos of the wonderful pots, plates and drawings which arrived in our inbox and asking all sorts of questions about the works and where they came from. We logged all the pottery marks and provenance information, as well as the wonderful stories of how their owner came to have a genuine Grayson Perry.’
Catrin and her team then sat down with Perry to look through the extraordinary and varied selection of artworks and it was during this process that Grayson remarked that seeing the works again was a powerful reminder of his “pre-therapy years.”
The exhibition begins with Perry’s early collaged sketchbooks, experimental films and sculptures, capturing his move into using ceramics as his primary medium. From his first plate, Kinky Sex (1983), to his early vases made in the mid-80s, Perry riffed on British vernacular traditions to create a language of his own. The themes of his later work – fetishism, gender, class, his home county of Essex, and the vagaries of the art world – appear in works of explosive energy. Although the majority of his output consisted of vases and plates, Perry’s early experiments with form demonstrate the variety of shapes he produced: Toby jugs, perfume bottles, porringers, funeral urns and gargoyle heads.
Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years begins in 1982, when Perry was first working as an artist and then charts his progress to the mid-90s, when he became established in the mainstream London ar t scene. The exhibition provides a snapshot of a very British time and place, and reveals the transition of Grayson’s style from playful riffs on historic art, such as old Staffordshire pottery, along with crowns (the mixed-media Crown of Penii, 1982) and thrones (Saint Diana, let them eat shit, 1984 – inspired by his fascination with Princess Diana) into a style that is patently his own: plates and vases rich with detail that tell tales of our times and experiences, such as 1989’s Cocktail Party.
Much of the iconography of Perry’s output has an angry, post-punk, deeply ironic leaning, combining cosy imagery with shocking sexual or political content.
Many of the works displayed in the Pre-Therapy Years tell a very personal story, particularly in the evolution of Claire, who first appeared in the early 80’s inspired by such powerful women as television newsreaders and Princess Diana, rather than the exuberant child-like figure Perry created after her ‘coming out’ party in 2000.
Accompanying the remarkable rediscovery of Perry’s artworks, The Holburne Museum will illustrate the exhibition with photos and snapshots of the era, again sharing hitherto unseen glimpses of Perry as he journeyed from angry, ironic young artist to one of British art’s best-loved figures.
After completing his art degree at Portsmouth in 1982, Perry moved to London and lived in a Camden squat, with Marilyn and the Welsh conceptual artist, Cerith Wyn Evans, collectively enjoying creative freedom while sharing limited resources. During these early years, Grayson encountered the Neo Naturists, a group of freewheeling performance artists, whose visual and innovative approach would have a profound impact.
Holburne Museum Director Chris Stephens says, “We are thrilled to be working with such an innovative and influential artist as Grayson Perry in this unique way. The Holburne is the ideal place to undertake this exhibition as we have a rich collection of ceramics from the past and, as a historical collection, it seems appropriate to take a historical view on the work of one of the great contemporary artists.”
Grayson says “This show has been such a joy to put together, I am really looking forward to seeing these early works again many of which I have not seen since the eighties. It is as near as I will ever get to meeting myself as a young man, an angrier, priapic me with tremendous energy but a much smaller wardrobe.”
The Holburne Museum’s mission statement is ‘Changing Lives Through Art’, signalling its commitment to opening up the enjoyment of art to people of all ages and from every walk of life. The Holburne was founded in 1882 with the gift of Sir William Holburne’s collection of 16th and 17th century Italian and Dutch paintings, silver, sculpture, furniture, porcelain and diverse objets d’art of national and international significance. That founding gift has been augmented with a collection of 18th-century paintings by such artists as Gainsborough, Lawrence, Ramsay, Stubbs and Zoffany. Set within the historic Sydney Pleasure Gardens, the Museum reopened in May 2011 after ambitious renovations and with a new, award-winning extension by Eric Parry Architects. The Holburne has since secured a national reputation as an outstanding museum which holds critically acclaimed exhibitions. Its programme of exhibitions, commissions and events sets out to bring to Bath great art of all periods and from around the world, seeking to set the art of the past in dialogue with contemporary practice in exciting and dynamic new ways.
After opening at the Holburne Museum, Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years will also travel to York (York Art Gallery, 12 June to 20 September 2020) and Norwich (Sainsbury Centre, October 2020 to February 2021).
Top Photo: Grayson Perry. Photo courtesy of Andrew Gibson, original photo by Richard Gilbert; Photography Todd-White Art Photography
Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years 24 January – 25 May 2020 The Holburne Museum