British Museum blog

Grayson Perry, a pot and me


Ian Jenkins, Senior curator, British Museum

I begin this post as a failure – that is to say – somebody (disarmingly described by him as ‘brilliant and funny’ but) unable to persuade my good friend Grayson Perry of the merits of Greek sculpture.

To underline this point, he has depicted me on a pictorial vessel in his current exhibition at the British Museum, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. I am shown, wielding a blood-dripping sword, defending the legacy of ancient Greece in the form of a Greek temple. The reference here is the ongoing conversation I have with Grayson about his view of Greek art and sculpture.

Ian Jenkins in warrior mode on the vase 'Grumpy Old God', Grayson Perry, 2010

It’s a matter of principle with Grayson that he regards Greek art as posh people’s stuff and associates it with all that he despises in Establishment art history. Although I wield the sword, it’s Grayson who sees himself as the artisan warrior and The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman is his personal commemoration of the lives of all those nameless craftsmen who created the majority of the objects in the British Museum.
A question I have for Grayson is what about the nameless Greek artisans who built the Greek temples and carved the many sculptures that we have in the Museum? Why are they to be excluded from his church of craftsmen?

I say this in the spirit of the good-natured dialogue Grayson and I have been having for approaching two years. In my capacity as a curator, I assisted him in various ways including delightful car journeys to the Museum store rooms at Blythe House – ironically in that part of west London we call Olympia – if not, in George’s café over delicious bacon sandwiches and milky coffee. I would find myself enthralled by Grayson’s effervescent personality, his natural intelligence and his remarkable tendency to speak in poetic aphorism. Sometimes the things he said seemed so profound as to leave me reeling and I could only reply ‘I’m going to have to think about that one Grayson.’

The striking thing about introducing Grayson to the collections was that while others might have selected the material they wanted to feature by a process of elimination based on the things that were put before them, he seemed always to have in his head a fully formed idea of what it was he wanted. As often as not he shook his head when shown what I thought would be appropriate, declaring the object to be not what he was looking for. And that, I think, is the essential difference between how a curator might approach an exhibition – laboriously sorting and collecting material – where Grayson had in his mind’s eye a ready formed idea of what he wanted and his adventure into the reserves of the Museum was a search for the desired objects.

The thing about Grayson is that he is universally regarded by all those who had the pleasure of working with him as a thoroughly nice bloke with natural intelligence and charisma and none of the pretensions of the celebrity artist that might be found in other personalities. I hope he found in us his extended family and in the British Museum, a new home. He became, and remains, one of us and in his own way became a curator.

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
is supported by AlixPartners, with Louis Vuitton.
Book tickets now

Filed under: Exhibitions, Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

7 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Mandy says:

    I understand this situation and though I never worked with Grayson Perry, for years I laboured to put contemporary artists in touch with those parts of the NHM collections I thought might be most interesting to them. I learned that you have to listen very carefully to have a chance of getting inside someone’s skin, sufficiently to locate objects that have meaning for them. Sometimes an artist’s vision is so strong you quickly establish a rapport and a whole catalogue of “the right stuff” springs into your curatorial mind. Some artists, I’m thinking Mark Dion for example, are interested in the way museums work and how curators approach things so the battle is half won at the outset. At other times you have to go walkabout through endless store rooms before ideas begin to crystallize and the light of inspiration and recognition starts to glow. I envy you this project Dr. Jenkins.

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  2. tabytha says:

    Yea i would agree with Mandy

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  3. corrie67 says:

    I’ve never met Grayson Perry although I have the same impression of him as you have had. An affable artist, a man who doesn’t follow the tribe, he doesn’t strive for status but works against elitism. He is in my top 10, as a lecturer in both ceramics and art history this is a special place to be.

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  4. John Lindsay says:

    Surely the elite art thing rests on the role of the pots? The pots in Athens time of pot making are dealing with earlier time of people such as Troilos or Leagros, or (and now make a long list) so why are pot time people interested in Troilos, or Leagros, and in particular, how they are depicted, for example the pot recently in Luton, with a Troilos scene and a Leagros scene. What is being said by putting these together on the same pot?

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  5. John Lindsay says:

    Grayson incidently wrote in the catalogue that he is an artist not an historian, so the comment about the class nature of an interest in pots must be seen as a political, or theoretical statement, but that cannot be unhistorical?

    So he might not be telling the truth?

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  6. lindanorris says:

    This is all very well, but I have been too busy being a craftsperson and actually making something to book a ticket to see the exhibition next week! Anyone got any suggestions as to how I might get one?

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  7. Lars Tharp says:

    A heartening message, Dr J !
    Grayson has hit on the fact that “Modern” Museums and Galleries (i.e. 19thC and later) have seamlessly taken on a very large part of the function medieval of cathedrals, giving Mankind a new script and narrative in a post-Darwinian Universe. Just look at the architecture. And the lowered voices of those come to worship. The museum and gallery-going public is a congregation of “believers” drawn too the presence of Relics, objects created by fellow humans. Whether near or far in time and place, we can somehow “commune” through objects with a larger Humanity; or, in the case of geological specimens, exhibits can place us in a time-frame which emphasises our transient moment of consciousness in an infinite Universe. (How can a Creationist visit the NAtural History Museum without emerging as a “convert”?) Yes, going to a museum is like going to church. As with holy bones, the “power” of the exhibits depends largely on our own inner creed and/or the narrative we are offered in descriptions and captions; we project our combined understandings onto the Object: “knowing” this to be part of The True Cross, Mohammet’s footprint, the Buddha’s toe or Guy Fawkes’ lantern makes us see it quite differently from our innocent neighbour. Sometimes convincing, sometimes genuine, sometimes Fake…we annoint the Object with Meaning. The greater the skill and effort demonstrated by the craftsman in its creation, the more compelling its power. The Craft of the Potter…. “Kraft” equals “Power”. Nothing proclaimed this better than the BM’s “History of the World” project alongside the magical Grayson Perry exhibition where at every turn we were challenged to see how we see.
    (Loved the portrait of IJ on the pot.)

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For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap
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