art, Illustration, Notebook

The Vanity of Small Differences

Pictured above: The artist Grayson Perry in front of one of his six tapestries that make up the series ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’


Notebook: 1 August 2016 | ART | ILLUSTRATION


In 1962 my father changed jobs and we moved from our 1920s semi in Staffordshire to a light and modern detached house on a small estate on the outskirts of the prosperous market town of Newbury in Berkshire. The removal van was packed with all our possessions and we stuffed ourselves into Dad’s small blue Ford Popular and leaving the Midlands behind, set forth to begin our new life in the sunny south.

The brand new house had central heating and was open plan with large picture windows. The light flooded in despite the heavy old curtains, carpets and dark furniture that had come with us from the old house. My mother loved the modern kitchen and she took a part time job at the hospital which helped fund the purchase of our first washing machine. Dad’s teaching job was supplemented by weekend work at the local racecourse and the old Ford Pop’ was soon replaced by a shiny new pale green mk1 Cortina. A sleek 1960s coffee table was also purchased and took pride of place in front of the window. Whether it looked at odds with the dark post war Utility furniture I can’t quite remember but mum kept it polished to a high sheen.

Our next door neighbours were a younger couple who had travelled and been to university. Their house was identical but felt very different. Whereas mum and dad had covered our 1960s parquet floor with drab carpet from their old house, the neighbours’ floor was left bare to show off its warmth and beauty and instead of a lumpy, dark sofa, they had a contemporary ‘mid-century’ sofa with bright and colourful cushions and their walls were adorned with ‘modern’ art. Best of all was the pungent and unusual mouth watering smell in their kitchen which I later discovered was that of garlic frying in butter. They read the Sunday Times with its accompanying magazine full of wonderful photography and illustration. We had the rather plain Sunday Express with its general knowledge and Skeleton crosswords.

Our neighbours’ neighbours’ house was again identical from the outside but quite different on the inside. He was a travelling salesman and his wares were stashed in cardboard boxes that filled his garage and part of his living room. My non-smoking parents would have turned up their noses at the smell of cigarette smoke that infused his house but I was never bothered by it.

Three identical 1960s houses but each with its own decor and unique smell – furniture polish and baking in ours, garlic in our next door neighbour’s and stale tobacco in their neighbour’s. I guess we were all middle class families with similar middle class incomes – ourselves and the travelling salesman from the lower middle classes and our younger couple with the modern taste from a more ‘intellectual’ middle class – but we were all separated by a gulf of ‘taste’.

The artist Grayson Perry is fascinated with British taste and class and how the two are inextricably woven together, and in 2012 he produced six fantastic tapestries called The Vanity of Small Differences that depict the life of a character, Tim Rakewell, from humble working class birth in Sunderland through to middle class success via Tunbridge Wells and on to fame, fortune and death in the Cotswolds. His work of art was inspired by Hogarth’s A Rakes Progress – a series of eight paintings that tell the story of Tom Rakewell who inherits and then gambles away the family fortune. Grayson Perry’s tapestries loosely reflect his own upbringing as a working class grammar school boy from Essex through to his success as an artist but as he sums up:

“Class is something bred into us like a religious faith. We drink in our aesthetic heritage with our mother’s milk, with our mates at the pub, or on the playing fields of Eton. We learn the texture of our place in the world from the curlicure of a neck tattoo, the clank of a Le Creuset casserole dish, or the scent of a mouldering hunting print. A childhood spent marinating in the material culture of one’s class means taste is soaked right through you. Cut me and, beneath the thick crust of Islington, it still says ‘Essex’ all the way through”

Brilliant words and so true.

Grayson Perry cleverly uses tapestries to tell his tale. Tapestries are traditional status symbols of the rich but here they depict an everyday story of social mobility. They were designed in Photoshop and then using specialist technology, were woven on lightning-fast computer controlled looms. Each tapestry is 4m x 2m with each taking just five hours to weave. They can easily be rolled up and transported and this makes them ideal for display as public artworks and they are currently on show as part of an Arts Council and British Council touring exhibition. I was lucky to catch them at the Herbert Gallery in Coventry in June – I’d seen them previously in print but as hanging tapestries they look even more stunning with exquisite vibrant colours and detail. They are currently on display at Croome near Worcester.

Here are Grayson Perry’s six tapestries in order:

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1 ‘The Adoration of the Cage Fighters’. The infant Tim Rakewell on his mother’s lap and looking on from the stairs in the background

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2. ‘The Agony in the Car Park’. Tim growing up in Sunderland

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3. ‘Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close’. After an argument with his family (left), Tim, who is at university, is taken by his girlfriend to meet her parents in Tunbridge Wells (right). This tapestry marks Tim’s move from working class to middle class.

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4. ‘The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal’. Tim (with baby) and his wife in their nice middle class home. Tim’s business partner (in the foreground) announces that he is now a very rich man having just sold their software business to Richard Branson.

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5. ‘The Upper class at Bay’. Tim and wife stroll in the grounds of their Cotswold mansion. The old aristocratic stag is hunted down by the dogs of tax, social change and bills.

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6. ‘Lamentation’. Tim lies dead after a car accident. This scene echoes the final painting of Hogarth’s ‘A Rakes Progress’ where Tom Rakewell dies half naked in the madhouse.