Grayson Perry at National Portrait Gallery ‘Who Are You?’

Posted on February 17, 2015 in Textiles

I was lucky enough to catch up with some old friends and have a look round one of my favourite galleries, the National Portrait Gallery, in London yesterday, specifically to see the Grayson Perry exhibition.

What struck me was the attention to detail and high level of craftsmanship in all of his work, which was really refreshing to see in a high art context. That the pieces were dotted around in amongst more permanent (and fustily Victorian) exhibits not only highlighted the playfulness of the pieces but made the whole experience seem like being on a treasure quest, complete with map.

The first textile piece, ‘Comfort Blanket’, was an enormous woven hanging loosely based on a bank note design and featuring a giant ‘Spitting Image’ puppet style portrait of the Queen.

Comfort Blanket Grayson PerryA Nice Cuppa Tea comfort-blanket-grayson-perry















The central figure reminded me of medieval anatomical drawings such as these:

13th Century Vein Map

13th Century Vein Map

Medieval Brain Map

Medieval Brain Map











Another woven piece, ‘Britain Is Best’ featured some really intricate thread and beadwork.

Britain is Best beadwork Britain-is-best-detail









‘Line of Departure’, a tapestry portrait of 3 wounded war veterans, was designed in the style of an Afghan War Rug.

Line of DepartureGrayson Perry War Rug








Afghan rug makers have been incorporating symbols of the apparatus of war into their rug designs since the Soviet occupation in 1979.

Afghan War Rug

I saw with interest that Grayson was using photographs transferred onto ceramic, particularly old family photos, to convey a sense of family history and memory.  ‘Memory Jar’ is a portrait of an Alzheimer sufferer and his wife hiding away under a blanket while the demonic ‘Altzy’ furiously shreds his family photos (memories) with a huge pair of scissors.

Memory Jar Memory Jar








They’re used again in ‘Modern Family’ to explore the complex mixture of identity issues experienced by a family consisting of two white male parents and an adopted mixed-race child.

Modern Family Modern Family








These pieces stood out to me particularly as I’ve been working with lots of vintage and antique photographs recently for my new book Photo Art including a project that transfers photos onto ceramics using water slide decal technique.

The lightest moment came when entering a room full of finely painted portraits only to see everyone crowded round one small spot. There, behind the masses, was a miniature portrait of Rylan Clark with a VIP pass slung round his neck, titled ‘The Earl Of Essex’.

Rylan ClarkGrayson Signature








Grayson has referenced Victorian mourning jewelry, with the lock of his hair kept at the back of the portrait, and also older Elizabethan miniature painters such as Nicholas Hilliard, by using the cobalt blue ground. I was puzzled by the signature on the back at first – why the letter W and why a little drawing of an anchor. Surely Grayson Perry would have GP as initials?

Then, about 5 hours later, I realised….if you put W before anchor, you get….


The show is on until 15th March 2015, free admission. More info here on the NPG website.

Have you seen the show? Which was your favourite portrait?


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