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Modern & Post-War British Art

Grayson Perry: An Artist Who Happens to Make Ceramics

Grayson Perry is an artist that needs no introduction. The 2003 Turner Prize winner is celebrated not only as one of Britain’s most lauded living artists, but also as one of its greatest minds, continually challenging the means by which we understand the world around us, and the society in which modern man lives.

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GRAYSON PERRY, BRITAIN IS BEST, COMPUTERISED EMBROIDERY ON COTTON AND SILK, 2014. SOLD FOR £48,750.

Perry’s world is one of politics, religion and gender, but at the heart of his output stands the key theme of ceramics - the medium that rocketed him into the limelight and for which, despite his broad and expansive work in a variety of different mediums, he will always be known for.

 “What’s brilliant about ceramics is the range of techniques and the enormously rich history which I can draw on for inspiration – you have everything that a painter has but also most of the stuff a sculptor has and all those very particular techniques and effects that you can only get with ceramics.” 

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GRAYSON PERRY, MEN HAVE LOST THEIR SPIRITS, CIRCA 1988, EARTHENWARE. SOLD FOR £52,500.

“I dabbled in ceramics at art college in Portsmouth. After leaving college I went to pottery evening classes and picked up the basics, which I would recommend to anyone who is embarking on any craft, just park your ego and learn the basics from someone who knows what they’re doing and get a good grounding in how things work.”

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DETAIL FROM MEN HAVE LOST THEIR SPIRITS, CIRCA 1988, EARTHENWARE. SOLD FOR £52,500.

Perry’s process involves the basic approach of hand building using coils as opposed to throwing on the wheel, a technique also favoured by the likes of Jennifer Lee and Gabriele Koch.

“I have never sat at a potter’s wheel. It was almost sort of talismanic that I would not do that, at pottery evening classes all the wheels were down one side, people were sitting there and I thought no, I’m never crossing the room, I’m always going to sit at the table. And also, I wanted to make relatively large things and I saw that all the people who were learning to throw could never make anything very big, whereas within a few months of starting coil building I was making vases that were 60 or 70cm. high.”

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DETAIL FROM MEN HAVE LOST THEIR SPIRITS, CIRCA 1988, EARTHENWARE. SOLD FOR £52,500.

The result of these hand-built works, such as Men Have Lost Their Spirits, which recently sold for £52,500 in the September Made In Britain auction, is one closer in approach to the work of Hans Coper than Lucie Rie, and to hear Perry talk of Coper, regarded by many as one of the greatest ceramicists of the past century, draws back the ceramic tradition that he has, through the nature of his techniques and choices of material, become a part of. Perry’s work relies on this grand ceramic tradition, both within British ceramics and also pottery on a more global scale, including through his choice of the classic ‘vase’ or ‘urn’ form as the medium for much of his work.

“With vases they always go right back to ancient Chinese ceramics; they were made for display, they weren’t necessarily made for function. Of course they had a spurious reference to function in that you could put something in them and they would hold water or whatever, but they were a sort of showpiece form of ceramics. Over the centuries potters and decorators have always shown off their best work on the vase - that’s the tradition I was buying into.”

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GRAYSON PERRY AT SOTHEBY’S RECENT COLLECTOR’S DINNER.

When Perry’s vases first emerged onto the art scene in the 1980s and ‘90s - alongside the now infamous generation of YBA artists including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin - the reaction was one of shock, in both his imagery - which is at times tough and challenging, with a brutal, unabashed honesty - but also shocking in the choice of medium, presenting them, at a distance, as classical and decorative items, something that was was met with objection both from the ‘art’ and the ‘ceramic’ scene.

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GRAYSON PERRY, HOLD YOUR BELIEFS LIGHTLY, COMPUTERISED EMBROIDERY ON COTTON AND SILK, 2011. SOLD FOR £10,625.

Perry has, over his thirty or so years in the national limelight been given many labels, but when asked whether he identifies himself as an artist or a potter or ceramicist, he seems quite clear.

“It’s absolutely vital what you call yourself. I’ve always called myself an artist, who happens to make ceramics.”

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