Grayson Perry Unveils New Unknown Craftsman Tomb At British Museum

Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry the Turner Prize-winning transvestite artist has unveiled the installation of a previously unseen edition of his work The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the British Museum.

The tomb is a memorial to all the anonymous craftsman of history

The Tomb is an elaborate, richly decorated cast-iron coffin-ship and was originally conceived as the centrepiece of Perry’s 2011 exhibition of the same name at the Museum. It has been brought back to its “spiritual home” after 9 years to celebrate the reopening of the British Museum, which will welcome visitors again from next week after the longest peacetime closure in its history. This display has been generously supported by Christian and Florence Levett.

Perry, who is a trustee of the Museum, created 4 versions of the Tomb in 2011 (3 editions plus an artist’s proof) one of which was shown in his exhibition. But this version remained unfinished until now, with Perry completing the work just days before its unveiling. It features over 140 glass bottles, with the final two being put in place yesterday. This edition has never been displayed before.

The work will this time be seen in a new setting: alongside the 2,400-year-old Nereid Monument. Like Perry’s work, the Nereid Monument is also a tomb, and was built around 380 BC for Erbinna, a ruler of Lycia (now southwestern Turkey). It was built to celebrate his life and to create a monument for the afterlife. Stylistic details of the Nereid Monument reveal that the sculptures were carved by different artists, but their names are now lost to history. The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman will sit in dialogue with the Nereid Monument, as a contemporary memorial to all those unnamed skilled individuals – men and women – who have made the beautiful wonders of history.

Perry’s work takes the form of an iron ship sailing into the afterlife. The ship is also a pun, a craft for the craftsman, it is an ark carrying things that have survived into the future. It is hung with casts of the fruits of their labours, mostly replicas of objects from the collection of the British Museum, and carries a cargo of blood, sweat and tears.

Grayson Perry said: “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman was the centrepiece of my 2011 exhibition of the same name at the British Museum. That show was one of the proudest achievements of my career, also one of the most enjoyable and educational projects I have embarked on. I am excited to see the tomb re-displayed in its spiritual home on the occasion of the Museum reopening after lockdown. The tomb is a memorial to all the anonymous craftsman of history. I meant it to be the shrine at the epicentre of a site of pilgrimage, the museum. It holds in its centre the tool that begat all tools, a flint hand axe. The ship is a symbol of trade and cultural exchange, loaded with images from all across the world held in the Museum.  From its masts hang the blood sweat and tears of those craftsmen and pilgrims past. It is a ship of death.

The British Museum is world-famous and in pre-COVID times was Britain’s number one tourist attraction it is also my local go-to place of inspiration. The vast collection of art and artefacts has inspired more of my own artworks than any other source. From a super eight film I made at art college in 1982, through to a 1998 Tang Dynasty bronze racing car and the 2011 Rossetta Vase, and most recently a tomb model of my home I made for our lockdown Channel 4 show Grayson’s Art Club. The Museum has been a constant friend ever since my first visit in the mid-1960s and I am delighted to be associated with it still.”

Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum said: “It is wonderful to have Grayson’s remarkable artwork back at the Museum, where it was first seen nearly a decade ago. Then as now, this piece is a reminder that many of the most remarkable works of human creativity in the collection of the British Museum were made by people whose names have been lost. This will be an opportunity to celebrate them and the astonishing objects they have left behind. After this difficult year, their legacy allows us to see humanity’s ability to endure and create even in precarious times.”

Christian Levett says: “After the British Museum’s longest peacetime closure, I am thrilled to support a highlight of its reopening: the return of the Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. This thought-provoking piece will provide a moment for visitors to engage in meaningful reflection on the often unnamed but highly skilled craftspeople who created the some 8 million objects in the British Museum’s collection today.”

Visitors will be able to see The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman for free and it is included in the new one-way tour around the Museum as part of new safety measures to keep guests safe. 9,000 objects can be seen when the Museum reopens on Thursday 27 August, with highlights including the Rosetta Stone, the Parthenon Sculptures, Hoa Hakananai’a, the Assyrian reliefs, the Benin Bronzes, the Aztec double-headed serpent, the Akan Drum and the Discobolus. Free tickets can be booked on the British Museum website or over the phone.

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