Once he had completed his training as a fine artist, Grayson Perry has spoken of how appealing he found the cussed lowliness of pottery. ‘The low status of pottery somehow acted as a semi-permeable membrane to keep me at an intellectual and aesthetic distance from the orthodoxies of the fine art world.’ For this reason, pottery was the ideal medium with which to explore the marginal geography of his native Essex – the subject of this plate, Essex, Middlesex, Sussex. The image of a hop field is transfer-printed in the middle of the plate, striated with characteristic receding lines of climbing shoots; hop-growing is one of the key downstream agricultural industries in Essex and Kent. Bird-headed figures join hands and seem to act as guardians over this raked, overcast landscape.
Perry is unashamed of his origins in Essex and some of his work explores the county’s landscape and its typical characters (‘The Whore of Essex’ included among them). Speaking to the curator Catrin Jones in 2001, he said: ‘cut me, and beneath the thick crust of Islington, it still says “Essex” all the way through.’ In an autobiography of his childhood co-authored with Wendy Jones, Perry has described how he lived for a time in two caravans with his mother, stepfather and siblings. The caravans were situated in ‘[a] field on the outskirts of Great Bardfield, a pretty village in North Essex.’ Later on in the early 1990s, Perry has described how he ‘spent an awful lot of time’ in a bikers’ tea hut in Epping Forest.
These marginalised Essex places have surfaced in Perry’s art from the beginning of his career. In his imagining, the ephemera of pill boxes, crashed cars and electricity pylons are not incidental in this landscape; they are the very things which make Essex a source of fascination. Aside from Essex, Middlesex, Sussex, the confessedly ‘bleak’ Essex landscape is depicted in similar plates likes Essex Landscape Plus Stocks (1985), The Union of Essexmen (1988), and Map of Essex (1990). Despite the dystopian allusions of these works, their common hue of bucolic earthy green suggests the notion of a pleasanter, more conventional England.
Essex, Middlesex, Sussex was made at a time when Perry was growing in confidence with the basic components of potting. ‘Over the decade 1984-94 I gradually became more technically proficient, inching closer to my goal of having the relaxed fluency to use clay, slip, glaze and enamel in the same way that I used paper, pen, paint and collage in my sketchbooks.’ The handicraft ripple and pleasing asymmetry of the plate indicate that it was made – and not merely decorated – by Perry.
A number of incisions and stamps are apparent on the work, along with a mixture of other techniques. The plate has been stamped with two of Perry’s potter’s marks, visible at the left- and right-hand side. Perry has used many potter’s marks; the most common is a ‘W’ above an anchor (a pun on ‘wanker’), seen on the left, and another is an ‘E’ above an anchor, seen on the right. (The ‘E’ presumably refers to Essex.) ‘Essex’, ‘Middlesex’ and ‘Sussex’ have also been stamped into the wet clay using traditional letter blocks. The composite bird-headed figures were also incised into the clay.
Aside from these incisions in the wet clay, the plate was glazed using a stencil: three consecutive lozenges with a line through the middle, around which has been brushed a green glaze of varying consistency. (This inconsistency and variability is a significant aspect of his so-called ‘pre-therapy’ work.) Finally, the image of the hop field was transfer printed onto the surface. Underpinned by a bricolage approach, this plate might be taken as a ceramic equivalent for paper collage.
Essex, Middlesex, Sussex belongs to a small group of similar plates by Perry which the artist discovered in around 2017 while clearing out a cupboard in his studio. These works illuminate the artist’s early practice. This period has recently been characterized as his ‘pre-therapy years’ (1982-1994) by an exhibition at the Holburne Museum, Bath, and is a subject of growing public and academic interest. (Perry underwent six years of psychotherapy in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in the course of which he worked through problems arising from his fraught childhood, when his father was absent and his stepfather was abusive.) Investigations into the period have been assisted by Perry himself who has said that ‘I look back at my early pieces now and I find them delightful and hilarious. I enjoy their frenetic energy and humour but I wince at some of the texts stamped into the surface.’
The Artist Victoria Miro Gallery, London Private Collection, 2018
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