3 July 2013 by Tim Willis

Grayson does the Derby: Perry’s portrait of modern Britain

Essex girls and Ascot ladies, hoodies and hen parties: as he makes a portrait of modern Britain based on Frith's Derby Day, Grayson Perry is a 50-plus artist who's really at the races

Grayson Perry_high50

Building bridges: Grayson’s new work crosses boundaries of class, genre and brow, just like Frith’s Derby Day

“Can we have that fat man and his dog now,” Grayson Perry calls into his lapel mic, “and one or two from the Jesus Army.” As two of his assistants go to fetch them, the artist mounts a stepladder and continues by megaphone.

“OK, can the arty woman stand between the golfing couple and the RAC man, and we’ll put the Polish builders and the Shelter chuggers to their left. That’s it, next to the Ascot ladies. And remember, when we’re taking the photograph, no looking at the camera. You want to be still, but animated, interacting with each other…”

The Ascot ladies, by the way, should not be confused with the Essex girls in an open-top red sports car. They’re being chatted up by a Soho trendy, while a Compton Street gay turns away in a huff.

Close by, a National Trust lady wilts in her tweeds, some hoodies get leery in a camper van and a hen party in pink tu-tus cavort on the tarmac.

In this cordoned-off bit of a car park at Newport Pagnell services, groups of football louts and crusties are being artfully arranged by Perry next to bicycling MAMILs and lip-pierced punks.

There’s a boy in a wheelchair and a man with Alzheimer’s, called Christopher, who stares straight ahead with a blank, good-natured smile. Ninety-five of us, in all.

Some are acting parts, some have come as themselves. All have been gathered here by Seneca Productions, which made 2012’s Channel 4, BAFTA-winning documentary series In the Best Possible Taste, in which Perry examined taste differences between the classes. This event is for the follow-up series (screening in about a year’s time).

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Grayson assembles his models. Photo from Seneca Productions

The idea is that the artist best known for his tranvestism and satirical pottery will construct a portrait of modern Britain, through various artefacts. And though the content won’t be as much about class as before, the topic is, says Perry “always at the forefront of people’s minds in Britain”.

Hence the group picture today. It is to be the series’ highlight: a re-creation of William Powell Frith’s famous Derby Day (1856-58), a panoramic painting of the Epsom Downs en fête, their democratic space allowing a huge range of classes and types to intermingle, all telling their own stories through their actions.

Perry says: “When I was trying to think of a contemporary equivalent to the Epsom race crowd, I decided: a motorway service station. That’s where you get everyone together.”

So the RAC man’s awning plays the part of Frith’s refreshment tent; the car and van, a phaeton and coach; Welcome Break’s signature curving roof stands in for the painter’s distant grandstand; and we, well, we shuffle around to order and are chuffed to bits: We’re going to be on the telly!

At the top of his game at 53

What’s more, once Perry has converted the photo that he’s art-directing into sketches and then a tapestry, it is going to be hung in the National Portrait Gallery. We’ll be immortalised in modern art.

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Grayson Perry (left) and high50 editor Tim Willis during the shoot

Quite apposite for your correspondent, I hope. This site’s editor (for it is I) has been cast as an up-all-night rocker – and thus, one hopes, a symbol of the vitality, élan and general all-round-greatness that characterises Generation high50, the new demographic force in the 21st century. And that’s a description that applies to Perry, too.

He has never been backward about coming forward. (For example, while some people might wait half a century before cross-dressing in public, Perry was doing it by 15.) But at 53, he’s going from strength to strength.

Unlike, say, 48-year-old Damien Hirst – who seems to have run out of ways to say that we’re all made of skin and bone and we’re all going to die – Perry keeps finding fresher and more imaginative ways to explore how individuals fit into societies.

Also, always accessible through his media – subverted night school crafts such as pottery and needlework – early in his sixth decade, he has found he’s a bit of a star, both as a creator and a presenter, in the ultimate inclusive medium: television.

There is something that appeals to the great British public about this deep-voiced, motorbiking, hands-dirty, Chelmsford intellectual who sometimes dresses as Bo Peep. And the brilliant use to which he puts television allows him to elucidate and educate all classes at any level of brow.

So if you want someone who can explain the history of art and his own place in it – as well as ours – look to someone in their fifties who can add experience to experiment.

But don’t expect him to please everyone all the time. “The trouble is,” says one frightfully smart lady, “we’re all so white. There aren’t enough Asians or foreigners.”

There have been some cancellations, it’s explained. But perhaps Perry’s work actually is more about the white working class, from which he sprang, than any other.

Whatever, he got it spot-on with the service station for a location. The only other way to make it more authentically modern-British would have been to put a reality TV crew among us.

But of course, there was one of those, too. Clever old Grayson.

Tim is the editor-in-chief of high50.com. He has worked for most of Britain’s better newspapers and some of its glossier magazines. He has edited, among others, the Sunday Times Style section, the Evening Standard’s ES magazine and Scotland on Sunday Magazine. His books include biographies of the rock-poet Syd Barrett and gossip columnist Nigel Dempster.
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