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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Bronze statuette of Zeus. Roman period, 1st–2nd century AD, said to be from Hungary.
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