It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.
Bernard Shaw. From the preface to Pygmalion.
Class lies at the heart of English society and it always has done. It defines us in the way that we live, the words that we use and the choices we make. Class mobility is far rarer and more difficult than we would like to think. If you move into another class you are likely to give away your origins in a hundred small ways that the natives of your new class will notice immediately. Grayson Perry’s series of six large tapestries, The Vanity of Small Differences, is an astute and exuberant look at the different modern tribes in English society. He tells the story of the rise and fall of an upwardly mobile IT consultant Rakewell. Like Hogarth’s rake in The Rakes Progress he comes to an unfortunate and untimely end and there are references to Hogarth throughout the series, as well as allusions to classical religious paintings from the medieval period. Grayson Perry’s tapestries have the same telling detail and earthy quality that The Rake’s Progress series has. The deadly accurate social commentary in them was taken from life, as they were made alongside his BAFTA award-winning television series about taste and the people and situations in them spring from direct observation.
The lives of ordinary people are given a touching dignity and grandeur as they are woven into the fictional story. Cage fighters present gifts to the baby Rakewell and his mother, who is bringing him up alone with the help of her nan. As a young man he sings karaoke, emoting with his microphone, idolised by those listening, a modern Christ in front of a cruciform crane. Finally a successful IT entrepreneur he watches as a sad-faced upper class stag is about to breathe its last, attacked by a pack of thoroughly medieval looking dogs. His death is recorded in the final tapestry and the accident scene in a characterless modern retail wasteland becomes a kind of Pieta. Each image carries a weight and meaning of its own while being part of the unfolding greater story. A young woman looking at them alongside me marveled at the detail, “every time I look I see something different”. Everyone around me was fascinated. A small boy- who was probably about seven years old- pointed out the pug with the curly tail to his little sister and read out some of the text which wound its way across the tapestry in which Rakewell escapes his humble origins, pronouncing the unfamiliar words carefully. “He was welcomed into the sunlit uplands of the upper classes”. Text is an important part of the images. It is all verbatim speech from the people Grayson Perry met in the filming of the television series, and it both explains and amplifies what is going on. There is something epic about the tapestries, both in their size and in their ambition and the story itself has a grand sweep to it. The rise and fall of a single human life is laid out before us. There is no judgment being made, just a fearless recording by Grayson Perry, of what he saw, his observations woven into a new shape and meaning by his Art. It reminded me of Arthur Miller’s wish, in his play Death of a Salesman, to show that the downfall of an ordinary flawed man could have the impact of a classical tragedy.
I wasn’t sure that Temple Newsam Hall was a good home for The Vanity of Small differences, despite the echoes of class consciousness that a great house provides. They were sometimes poorly lit and positioned so that it was hard to get a detailed look- something that they cry out for. In spite of that I am very grateful for the fact that it is touring, allowing so many people to see the tapestries. One day I hope that I shall see them again, beautifully lit in a clear space where the whole story can be seen easily in sequence.
This series is a real feast for the eyes and as time passes it will become an even more poignant and telling chronicle of our life and times. A moment in our society has been captured forever by an artist who is as shrewd as he is talented. I wonder what those people who look at The Vanity of Small Differences in two or even four hundred years time will make of us?