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Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

Nearly a decade ago, Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry held an exhibition at the British Museum called The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. At the exhibition’s heart was an extraordinary new work, which the exhibition was named after. The work – the eponymous Tomb – was an elaborate, richly decorated cast-iron coffin-ship. It was a memorial to forgotten artists who, through the ages, had made many of the objects found in the British Museum.

The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the centre of Grayson Perry’s 2011 British Museum exhibition of the same name.

The work takes the form of an iron ship sailing into the afterlife. The ship is also a pun, a craft for the craftsman, an ark carrying things that have survived into the future. It is hung with casts of the fruits of their labours, mostly replicas of objects from the collection at the Museum, and carries a cargo of blood, sweat and tears. Now, nine years later and as we reopen after an unprecedented five-month closure, the Tomb is back.

Grayson Perry in a publicity shot for The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman exhibition, 2011.

You can see the work on the new one-way route around the galleries – although the version going on display this time is a never before-seen sister piece to the one in the 2011 exhibition, completed very recently. Perry made four versions of the Tomb (three editions plus an artist’s proof) in 2011 – one was the centrepiece of the exhibition, but the one now going on display remained unfinished for many years. Anyone with eagle eyes may have spotted it in the background of his studio during his lockdown show Grayson’s Art Club on Channel 4. Since then, Perry has been fine-tuning it, added the 140 glass bottles that hang on the structure in the days before its unveiling.

The Sutton Hoo helmet. Late 6th-early 7th century.

The ship can be seen as a reference to the Anglo-Saxon ship burial from Sutton Hoo. The 27m long boat burial, found in Suffock, is the richest intact early medieval grave found in Europe and contained treasures of extraordinary craftsmanship, including feasting vessels, deluxe hanging bowls, silverware, textiles, gold dress accessories set with Sri Lankan garnets and the iconic helmet with human mask. 

The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman on display in Room 17 in front of the Nereid Monument.
Grayson Perry (b. 1960), The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, 2011. Cast iron, oil paint, glass, rope, wood, flint hand axe. © Grayson Perry. Courtesy Victoria Miro.

The Tomb is displayed alongside the 2,400-year-old Nereid Monument in Room 17. The Nereid Monument is also a tomb – but was built in around 380 BC for Erbinna, a ruler of Lycia (now southwestern Turkey). It was built to celebrate his life and to create a monument for the afterlife. Stylistic details of the Nereid Monument reveal that the sculptures were carved by different artists, but their names are now lost to history. The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman sits in dialogue with the Nereid Monument, as a contemporary memorial to all those unnamed skilled individuals – men and women – who made some of the wonders of history.

The Nereid Monument. Marble. Around 390–380 BC.

Grayson says: ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman was the centrepiece of my 2011 exhibition of the same name at the British Museum. That show was one of the proudest achievements of my career, also one of the most enjoyable and educational projects I have embarked on. I am excited to see the tomb re-displayed in its spiritual home on the occasion of the Museum reopening after lockdown.

Grayson Perry with The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman.
Grayson Perry (b. 1960), The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, 2011. Cast iron, oil paint, glass, rope, wood, flint hand axe. © Grayson Perry. Courtesy Victoria Miro.

The Tomb is a memorial to all the anonymous craftsman of history. I meant it to be the shrine at the epicentre of a site of pilgrimage, the Museum. It holds in its centre the tool that begat all tools, a flint hand axe. The ship is a symbol of trade and cultural exchange, loaded with images from all across the world held in the Museum. From its masts hang the blood sweat and tears of those craftsmen and pilgrims past. It is a ship of death.

The Rosetta Vase by Grayson Perry which was on display as part of the Perry’s 2011 exhbiition The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. The vase depicts the Museum as a modern-day secular place of pilgrimage where cultures and ideas meet. It includes a depiction of a ship with the label ‘sailing into the afterlife’.
Grayson Perry (b. 1960), The Rosetta Vase, 2011. © Grayson Perry. Courtesy Victoria Miro.

The British Museum is world famous and in pre-Covid times was Britain’s number one tourist attraction. It is also my local go-to place of inspiration. The vast collection of art and artefacts has inspired more of my own artworks than any other source. From a super eight film I made at art college in 1982, through to a 1998 Tang Dynasty bronze racing car and the 2011 Rosetta Vase, and most recently a tomb model of my home I made for our lockdown Channel 4 show Grayson’s Art Club. The Museum has been a constant friend ever since my first visit in the mid-1960s and I am delighted to be associated with it still.’

Visitors will be able to see The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman for free – it is included in the new one-way route around the Museum, introduced along with other measures to keep visitors safe. More than 9,000 objects can be seen when the Museum reopens this week – read about highlights of the route here.

Book your free ticket to the Museum here.

Buy the book which accompanied the 2011 The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman exhibition here.

Display supported by Christian and Florence Levett