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March 18 2012

Secrets of the studio

In pictures: For a groundbreaking book, 120 of Britain's most celebrated and emerging talents have granted rare access to their work spaces

December 14 2011

Readers' cultural review of 2011: What, no Katy B?

Last week our critics picked their highlights of 2011. Did they get it right? Readers respond with their own highs (and lows)


One Man, Two Guvnors was the most fun I've had in a theatre for years – easily the best play of 2011, and James Corden best performer. The National theatre largely misfired for me: A Woman Killed with Kindness, Cherry Orchard, 13, The Kitchen, Frankenstein and Greenland were all largely disappointing.

The RSC's Homecoming was the best revival. Rupert Goold's Merchant of Venice was great fun, even if the inconsistency in Portia's characterisation (from ditzy blond Glee fan to brilliant prosecutor, hm) took the edge off it.

Tom Brooke was my favourite actor of the year – in The Kitchen, and I Am the Wind.


Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid are still two of my least-admired starchitects. However, credit where it's due. I had the pleasure of wandering Toronto's AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario), redesigned by Gehry [a few years ago], and apart from his usual frivolous facade, the interior had been quite brilliantly done. So restrained and sophisticated: words I never never thought I'd use for the old showboater.


Katy B owned pop in 2011, or temporarily leased the lower sections of the charts from Adele at least. Seven singles off one album and a successful B-side, bridging the gap between cool, intriguing dance and charming, relatable 2000s-style British pop-star writing. Loved it.


The programme of the year has been Mark Cousins' superb history of the cinema, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, on More4. Incredibly wide-ranging, informative and inspiring, with extremely intelligent analysis of how film developed and how the great directors innovated.


Artist Christian Marclay's awesome 24-hour film-montage The Clock, shown as part of the British Art Show in Plymouth. Mesmeric, fascinating, witty editing and marvellous film-buffery content.


The Inbetweeners Movie. The snobs may scoff but this film says more about Britain and its youth than 20 Ken Loach films ever could.


Two of the greatest musical evenings were the appearances of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer in Mahler's First symphony, and the zany late-night Prom with audience requests including Bartók, Kodály and Stravinsky. A month before that, the magic combination of Andris Nelsons and the CBSO in Richard Strauss and Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky.

At the Royal Opera, the three most memorable performances were Madama Butterfly with Kristine Opolais in the title role and her husband Andris Nelsons in the pit; Werther with Sophie Koch and Rolando Villazón doing his best (still short of what Jonas Kaufmann can do); and the recent revival of Faust, with Vittorio Grigolo, René Pape, Angela Gheorghiu and Dmitri Hvorostovsky.


The release by the BFI on DVD and Blu-Ray of Barney Platts-Mills's 1971 film Private Road, starring Bruce Robinson (who later wrote Withnail and I). I first saw this in about 1987 on TV and I've been wanting to see it again ever since. Even better than I thought.


Gruff Rhys's Hotel Shampoo was my favourite album of the year; Cashier No 9 was not given the recognition it deserved. Enjoyed Kate Bush, Tinie Tempah, Noel Gallagher and Will Young's offerings, but very disappointed with Coldplay. Adele: lovely voice but too many songs sound the same on her album.

Still, it wasn't all bad: the end of Westlife and hopefully the beginning of the end for X Factor.


Right Here Right Now; Format international photography festival in Derby. Thousands of photographers took part from all over the world, including Joel Meyerowitz and Bruce Gilden. An exciting and eclectic mix showing the best in street photography.


Best resurrection: Rab C Nesbitt. Comedy of the year for me. Now that the Tories are back in, he seems to have found his mojo again.


Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery. I think the major problem with this absurdly hyped show is that, apart from the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks and the unfinished St Jerome, the other six "Leonardo" paintings on display are either too unattractively gauche, stiff and mannered to be considered good or significant. Or they're too implausibly naturalistic to be an autograph work (La Belle Ferronière is too lifelike to be by Leonardo). Or just too plain weird and damaged to take seriously (step forward, the newly discovered Salvator Mundi).

Thank you, Adrian Searle, for having the integrity to give your honest opinion about this insanely promoted but hugely disappointing show.


The High Country, an album by Portland band Richmond Fontaine, demands your attention from first song to last. It's one of the only albums that will give you the same sense of satisfaction that finishing a novel does.


Bridesmaids was a great and genuinely funny film. Comedies (and female comedians) are too frequently dismissed, especially by the Oscars board.


British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet in Plymouth. It was good to see [Christian Marclay's] The Clock and Sarah Lucas's work up close and personal. At least there is an emphasis on craft skills in video art: good focus, framing and timing are back in fashion.


Nicola Roberts, the good one from Girls Aloud. In her album Cinderella's Eyes she lays out her inner demons and anguish on a platter of sumptuous dance pop hooks and beats. The album is so simple that my two-year-old can sing along, and layered enough that we slightly elder statesmen can appreciate it as well.


In no particular order: Sufjan Stevens live at Southbank: ambitious, experimental, joyous, exciting, sad. Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle: the sixth episode, Democracy, was quite simply awesome. Senna is my film pick: made in 2010, but didn't get released on these shores until 2011. Wonderfully moving.


Propeller's Comedy of Errors was riotous. I mean, how often does a naked grown man run past you with a sparkler wedged into his buttocks?


Archipelago is the worst film I have ever seen in 50-odd years of cinema-going. How Peter Bradshaw and Philip French can find a single redeeming quality in this dreadful two-hour river of bathetic, emotionless, drama-free drivel baffles me.


I loved Attack the Block. I got mugged the week before it was released and actually found watching it quite cathartic. I was rooting for the little shits by the end. That's good screenwriting.


A really disappointing year for British TV, which has been on a downward slide. Doctor Who was probably still the best thing domestically. The Crimson Petal and the White and The Hour were underwhelming misfires; The Shadow Line was about the only really promising new kid on the block.

The basic problem is that there's just not enough TV drama being produced. We need more one-offs, more Plays for Today to allow TV to find new voices and take more chances. Everything seems to be market-researched and focus-grouped into mediocrity.


We went to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park this summer and were blown away by the incredible Jaume Plensa exhibition; the alabaster heads took my breath away. Beautiful, mesmerising and enchanting.


Memorable plays: Flare Path, Frankenstein (Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature was brilliant), and Much Ado at the Globe (Eve Best and Charles Edwards were good enough to almost match my memories of Janet McTeer and Mark Rylance as Beatrice and Benedick).

Damper squibs were Chicken Soup with Barley (far too long). Conor Macpherson's The Veil at the National started brilliantly but didn't deliver the beautiful, haunting, elegiac power of The Weir – a great shame.


There were aspects of Grayson Perry's Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman that drove me round the bend. But he wrote well about his theme and chose some absolutely lovely objects from the British Museum's collection.


85A collective from Glasgow's brilliant mechanical opera Idimov and the Dancing Girl at the Secret Garden Party. Spooky, funny, ingenious.


The Tree of Life: a vast expansive film with multiple interpretations, and little in the way of film convention for the casual viewer to latch on to. Viewers fall into two camps I think: those who want simply to be entertained and led, and those who want to explore and participate. Tree of Life is about participation.


I just couldn't get The Tree of Life. I tried. I wanted to like it. Admittedly I was on a Singapore Airlines flight, which is not the ideal way to appreciate its cinematic beauty.


The Tree of Life is quite possibly the most overrated movie of all time. The sheer brilliance of every single actor isn't in dispute, nor is the superb cinematography. The movie itself is the problem, because it's a real clunker. It's also one of the few films I've seen at the cinema where people were either (vociferously) walking out in disgust or staying behind just to boo.


The [designs for the] new US Embassy in London. I realise these buildings have to be more fortresses than offices, but really. I'm disappointed that such an important new commission isn't going to be more iconic. Especially since I live opposite the site.


Possibly the biggest disappointment was the final track on Bon Iver's second album: it never fails to surprise me with just how cheesy and plain bad it is.


Some of my favourite moments have been in otherwise unremarkable shows. I was slowly won over by Susan Hiller at Tate Modern, and Nancy Spero's works Azur and Hours of the Night II [at the Serpentine] were so incredible I forgot all the meh stuff that surrounded them. The only exhibition I have been unreservedly knocked over by was Mike Nelson's Coral Reef at Tate Britain – an old piece so I'm not sure it counts. Not a superlative year; let's hope 2012 is better and isn't overwhelmed by a spurious Cultural Olympiad. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 02 2011

Does the Turner prize still matter?

This year's Turner prize winner is named next week. Artist and former winner Jeremy Deller, and writer and former judge Miranda Sawyer discuss art's biggest contest

On Monday the winner of the 2011 Turner prize will be announced. Founded in 1984, it is awarded to a British artist under the age of 50. Previous winners include Antony Gormley and Damien Hirst. Since it was established, it has stoked controversy about contemporary art, though in recent years it has been more notable for its lack of sensationalism. Emine Saner asks journalist and broadcaster – and one-time judge – Miranda Sawyer, and artist and winner of the 2004 prize, Jeremy Deller, if it still matters.

Miranda Sawyer: Who is the Turner prize for?

Jeremy Deller: It's for the public, it's for the artists who take part, it helps the Tate, it's for whoever wants it. It's for the appreciation of contemporary art. The fact it's going to be moving around Britain is a good idea [this year it will be held outside London for the second time, at the Baltic in Gateshead]. Every other year it's going to leave London, and I think it's really important. Apparently in Gateshead they had 5,000 on the first day [by the end of the week, 30,000 people had visited]. The hunger is there.

MS: You could argue that it's done its job – we all know who Damien Hirst is; the Tate Modern is there. It's still needed, because every time it comes around there's a debate about it. The thing I find difficult is that it tends to be a trivial debate – "why isn't there an unmade bed this year?" or "why isn't it something we can get upset about?"

Emine Saner: Is there an expectation that it's going to be shocking, and then when it isn't, like this year, it almost seems disappointing? Do you think this diminishes its popularity?

JD: I don't think it diminishes its popularity. The public and media are more used to contemporary art now. I think you're mixing the press reaction with the public reaction. When I won, I said you lot [journalists at the press conference] are 10 years behind the public, you're still in this era of "this is all a big con" or "this is rubbish". But you see people at the Turner prize walking around, and they are into it in a way you'd never expect, reading everything and looking at everything. The first question I got from a journalist after I won was: "Is the video camera the new pencil?" If you go in for the Turner prize, you have to be quite strong, because you are up for a massive destruction at the hands of the press if you are not careful.

ES: What did winning the Turner prize do for you?

JD: If you have won it, people are happy to meet you, work with you and do things with you. It's a shorthand for "this person is successful", so I can get access to people and situations. Within the art world, you get invited to dinners, but it's actually helpful outside the art world. It's much more highly regarded abroad than it is in the UK. Because it's been going on for so long, and the winners have been pretty good, they see it as having a legitimacy. If you don't make much money with your work and you get nominated, it's like you're being recognised finally, because you're not recognised by the market. Maybe that's why I did it – the need to be legitimised.

MS: I can't name another contemporary art prize that is as important, and that's amazing really, that it still has that status, and people will still react to it.

JD: One of the reasons we need it is because there are these big names in contemporary art who get the publicity, and yet there are all these other artists who deserve some appreciation. The big artists monopolise press attention and the public's consciousness of what art is. And yet someone like George Shaw [one of the nominated artists] has credibility within the art world, and for the public is a real discovery.

MS: I like the hoo-ha. If somebody really press-friendly wins, like Grayson Perry, he had a rollercoaster year, he loved it, he's now a kind of national treasure. It works when you get interesting art and an interesting personality. There's a lot of culture being fired at you from all sides and the Turner is one way of guiding people. There is still an intimidation aspect to contemporary galleries. Sometimes you can go to an east London gallery and there's one person there being really cool and you have to walk around looking at things feeling like a dick. If you go into a place like Tate Modern, it's like a public park under a roof – the atmosphere is "anyone can come, have a look". People feel they might not know anything about contemporary art, but they can walk in. It's the same with the Turner prize exhibition.

JD: The prize is about making people not feel stupid – the environment is very user-friendly, even if the art isn't. If you go to see it, you're part of something as well, which makes it quite exciting.

MS: I was on the Turner prize judging panel [in 2007]. It was the single most traumatic experience I've had judging anything, by miles. There are just four of you, and there's something about the prize that is incredibly intense. You're not judging the work that is shown to the public, you're judging a piece of work or exhibition that is not there. The year I judged it, Mark Wallinger won. He won for State Britain [Wallinger's recreation of peace campaigner Brian Haw's protest camp] – but that wasn't shown. He showed Sleeper [the artist filmed himself wearing a bear suit and walking around a German gallery], so everybody thought he won it for that, although Sleeper is a great work.

JD: That lack of clarity can be a problem.

MS: I love art, but I don't go to every private view, I don't go to Venice [Biennale, contemporary art exhibition]. You can't go and see all the art. It is possible, if you're judging the Mercury prize or the Booker, to listen to all the albums or read all the books, but with art, it's impossible. You have to go and have that experience, and it's not possible unless you're in the art world or you're paid to go and look at everything.

ES: How do you feel about the age limit?

MS: I don't think there should be one.

JD: I was a trustee until recently, and we discussed it. I felt it should have been changed, but not many other people did. They realised that for the first 10 years of the new Turner prize, they would be giving it to people in their 70s and 80s, catching up, giving it to these mega figures.

MS: Maybe the argument for having an age limit is that it will help people more when they're younger – but in that case, why not whack it down?

JD: Artists mature later. It's a slower burn.

MS: What could you do to the Turner prize to make it better?

JD: Probably have more of a budget for the judges and the artists. Do a better book, a lovely catalogue. Treat it with a bit more respect as a process. But this isn't the time to ask for bigger budgets for art exhibitions.

• For more coverage of this year's prize, including video profiles of all the nominees, click here © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 26 2011

Annual RCA secret postcard sale draws Emin, Perry and Ono

Almost 3,000 artworks were donated by artists and designers whose identities were hidden until £45 purchase price was paid

Art lovers discovered whether they had bagged a mini-masterpiece by the likes of Tracey Emin, Yoko Ono or Anish Kapoor on Saturday when they took their chances on the almost 3,000 secret postcards on sale for just £45.

Wallace and Gromit film-maker Nick Park and fashion designer Sir Paul Smith also contributed to the fundraiser, organised by the Royal College of Art.

More than 1,000 invited artists – including up-and-coming students and graduates – donated 2,900 works to the 18th RCA Secret event, held at the college in Kensington, west London.

Among the postcards on offer were four pencil drawings of a woman lying on a bed by Emin and two from Park featuring a beaver driving a tractor and a happy squirrel.

But unlike traditional sales, the artist's identity remained a secret until the postcard was purchased and the buyer was able to read the signature on the back.

Also appearing in the collection were film-maker Mike Leigh's photo-collage of a gentleman with a pig and five colourful pen drawings by ceramicist Grayson Perry, including one of a tiger with the words "Most art is shit".

The postcards, some of which are potentially worth thousands of pounds, were offered on a first come, first served basis on Saturday after a week-long exhibition.

Organisers hope this year's event – the largest to date – will raise more than £130,000 for the college's fine art student award fund.

The collection's curator, Wilhelmina Bunn, said: "We are enormously grateful to all of the artists who have donated postcards this year, making it the biggest event we have ever staged.

"As future funding for art education is likely to be reduced, it's encouraging that established artists and designers are willing to help support a new generation of students."

The sale has raised more than £1m over the past 17 years. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

The Royal College of Art Secret Postcards 2011 – in pictures

Around 3,000 postcard sized artworks were created and donated by undisclosed artists and designers for the annual RCA Secret sale on 26 November. Now, some of the artists can be revealed …

October 07 2011

TV highlights 07/10/2011

The Culture Show | Rostropovich – The Genius Of The Cello | Autumnwatch 2011 | Criminal Minds | A League Of Their Own | Chris Addison: My Funniest Year

The Culture Show
7pm, BBC2

Another week, another eclectic collection of reports from the arts show, which this week visits Glasgow. Top of the bill is host Andrew Graham-Dixon interviewing Grayson Perry, who's lately curated an installation of new works mixed up with objects drawn from the British Museum collection. Mark Kermode discusses We Need To Talk About Kevin with its director Lynne Ramsay, Simon Armitage celebrates National Poetry Day, and critic Michael Collins considers representations of working-class characters in the theatre. Plus, choreographer Akram Khan and the work of artist Gerhard Richter. Jonathan Wright

Rostropovich – The Genius Of The Cello
7.30pm, BBC4

The cello is the closest orchestral instrument to the human voice in its range of expression. It has achieved a pre-eminence in the classical repertoire, growing throughout the 20th century. Much of this is to do with the tireless brilliance of the late Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. This profile, rich with footage, depicts a man whose energy and lust for life, as well its joys and sadnesses, informed his playing, and whose excessiveness broke the banks of mere virtuosity. David Stubbs

Autumnwatch 2011
8.30pm, BBC2

Once a week for eight weeks, Autumnwatch will be hoping something happens. Presenters Chris Packham, Martin Hughes-Games and Michaela Strachan will be travelling the country to try to catch wildlife in action. The live locations include the wetlands at Slimbridge reserve in Gloucestershire, where kingfishers, otters and 35,000 wildfowl are all potential stars, and the National Arboretum at Westonbirt, which will probably be worth a visit for the stunning seasonal colours alone. Martin Skegg

Chris Addison: My Funniest Year
11.10pm, Channel 4

Addison takes to the stage of the Hackney Empire to deliver a live clip show based around his favourite year. His comedy odyssey takes us back to 2001, when Bush Jr came to power and ITV's Popstars gave us Hear'Say. News footage shows the year to be not that funny at all, with the twin towers falling and mass culling of foot and mouth-infected livestock, but this just gives Addison a chance to deploy the stockpile of gags he's had a decade to gather. Phelim O'Neill

Criminal Minds
9pm, Sky Living

A show based around the FBI's behavioural analysis unit, which psychologically profiles killers. For this seventh season, Criminal Minds departs forensic reality for a slightly far-fetched fantasy. Last series, it seemed that team member Emily Prentiss was a goner – stabbed in the abdomen by her arms-dealer former lover. How straightforward that would have been. In fact, Prentiss is alive, and hiding out in Paris until she finds an opportune moment to rejoin the unit. Fun stuff – and look out for Mad Men's Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) guest-starring as a member of a senate committee. John Robinson

A League Of Their Own
10pm, Sky1

While its antecedent, They Think It's All Over, managed to show the surprisingly sharp side of sporting figures such as David Gower and Steve Davis, A League Of Their Own merely plays down to expectations. Team captains Andrew Flintoff and Jamie Redknapp, though likable enough, aren't terribly interesting, leaving the burden of entertainment on James Corden and his interchangeable support staff of panel-show comics, which, for this fourth series, includes Jack Whitehall, Jason Manford and Lee Mack. Gwilym Mumford © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 06 2011

Grayson Perry – review

British Museum, London

"Part of my role as an artist," writes Grayson Perry in the catalogue to The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, "is similar to that of a shaman or witch doctor. I dress up, tell stories, give things meaning and make them a bit more significant." This is as true of Perry's relationship to his own art as it is of his enthusiasm for the things he has brought together for this show. The objects he has selected from the British Museum's collection are significant enough already, even when their original purpose and meaning is obscure – and even when they are as formally beautiful as the Boli figure, a great bovine clay and mud creature from Mali, or as spare and complex as the criss-crossed canes of a sailing chart for the Marshall Islands in the middle of the Pacific.

Shrines, "magick", pilgrimages, sexuality and gender, patina, texture and craftsmanship number among his themes. Each section could be a show in itself. We know, from Perry's written texts and from his own work, that he is at heart a commentator in everything he does. Perry snuck up on the British artworld – if a 6ft tall motorcycling Essex transvestite can sneak up on anything – during the 90s, and won the Turner prize in 2003 for his slightly wonky, decorated ceramic urns. Yet he won it as much as anything else for being Grayson Perry. His art and persona are inextricably linked, just like Joseph Beuys, one of his heroes. Perry is nowhere near as a good an artist as Beuys, but his clothes are more fun. The more public a figure he has become, the more confident Perry has become as an artist.

A show that riffs on craftsmanship, artistic give-and-take, reading and misreading across millennia and the persistence of the past in the present is a risky business. It is as much about Perry himself as it is about the anonymous makers and distant cultures of the artefacts he has brought together, which include Roman rings decorated with tiny erect phalluses, 17th-century Staffordshire plates, 20th-century Japanese photographs of drag kings and queens, and a Mesopotamian relief of a couple in bed.

The show is full of wonderful things. His own iron sculptures of male and female pilgrims (with their swag of sewing machines, mobile phone necklaces, boomboxes and babies) have an ethnographic look, and are a fitting sort of homeless pastiche. His reworking of a 16th-century Rhineland jug, with the original's oak leaves entwined with his riffs on second world war imagery, is a lively play on origins and history. Yet his Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, a big iron coffin ship and the centrepiece of the exhibition, feels comparatively laboured as well as overladen with its cargo of cross-cultural references and glass phials of blood, sweat and tears.

I also find the shop full of Perry-designed merchandise at the end of the show an undignified comedown. But Perry largely pulls it off. Artists often make good curators: they have more at stake than most career professionals. I could have done with fewer of Perry's own works, and less of Alan Measles, however fundamental this teddy bear is to Perry's iconography. But it is a useful prop, a transitional object in Perry's personal and artistic journey.

Rating: 4/5 © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 03 2011

Grayson Perry: 'I'm allowed to go mad in the British Museum'

The artist displays objects from the museum alongside his own works in his exhibition The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

The first object you see on entering Grayson Perry's exhibition at the British Museum, which opens on Thursday, is a large pot by him decorated with images of visitors to the show and their imagined reasons for coming. "I need to have my negative prejudices confirmed," reads one speech bubble. "I just wanted to satisfy myself that I am more clever than this charlatan," reads another.

Perry, as he gave the Guardian a pre-opening tour of the exhibition, said: "I just thought it would be better to get all that stuff over with. I know what kind of shit goes down."

It is a typically knowing and cheeky intervention from the Turner prize winner, who persuaded the British Museum to let him create an exhibition by choosing objects from its stores alongside examples of his own work, which spans pottery, tapestry and, in the spectacular finale to the show, a vast cast-iron sculpture in the form of a ship, called The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman – which is also the title of the exhibition.

The show is not an art-historical primer, or a didactic exhibition about the way Perry makes work or thinks. "Some of the labels are quite bold," said Perry, "in their lack of information." Rather, it is a tour into Perry's imagination and intuition – even, perhaps, his subconscious. "Don't look too hard for meaning," he said. "We are all a bit mad, and this is me: it's just I'm allowed to go mad in the British Museum." The visitor, he said, will be "wandering around in my head".

If there is a unifying thread to the exhibition, it is perhaps about the power of objects – both that which is automatically conveyed by their being placed in a museum, but also their power as religious, ritual or fetishistic artefacts.

Creepily, here is a gold earring, "origin and date unknown" as the label primly states, with a chunk of withered ear attached – snatched from a living person? Snapped off a mummified corpse? Nearby, Perry has placed another severed body part, if anything more disturbing than the ear: his own ponytail, which he cut off in 1985, and placed in a little ceramic coffin he fashioned. One of his favourite exhibits, he said, is a Boli figure, or power figure, from Mali: an almost formless, squat blob formed from clay, mud and, according to Perry, blood. "It is the sheer potency of the object: there's something incredibly primal about it," he said. "I knew as soon as I saw it that it had to be in the exhibition." There are also shrines ("I love a good shrine") and pilgrim souvenirs – from modern badges to medieval lead-alloy brooches, one depicting a woman riding a broomstick to which a large penis has been attached.

The exhibition is an act of love to the museum – "most of my travelling has been done through this place," said Perry – but it also subtly questions its authority; it seems to ask why the artist's deeply intuitive way of organising objects is any less valid than the scholarly, supposedly objective systems of classification they are subject to as part of the museum collection.

How hubristic is it of Perry to place his own work alongside the hallowed artefacts of the BM? "Of course it's hubristic," he said. "I'm absolutely aware of the bitter irony of it being called The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman when it's in fact a celebrity artist's vanity project." © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 17 2011

Grayson Perry: The British Museum and me

Turner prize-winning transvestite potter Grayson Perry long cherished an ambition to show his own art – his own 'civilisation', as he calls it – alongside the great ancient civilisations of the world – but little dreamed the British Museum would agree to his proposal…

I was approaching 50 and doing OK. Success in the art world means getting invitations to exhibit in some great places. I had shown in contemporary art museums in Europe, America, New Zealand and Japan. I'd also been asked to curate shows, and had made work to go with my selections from historical collections. I realised I could just slot into a very nice contemporary art career trajectory of one-man shows in beautiful designer art galleries, the odd biennale, a growing stack of monographs – in short, a good art career that ends with every good collection in the world wanting a signature piece. Then I sat down and thought: "What sort of exhibition do I really want to put on?"

I had called my last big show, which travelled to Japan and Luxembourg, My Civilisation. The territory my civilisation occupied was my mind, which was laid out for visitors to see in my print Map of an Englishman, hung in the first room. I thought mischievously that all civilisations have a religion, so I made my teddy bear, Alan Measles, the leader of my childhood universe, a god.

It started as a joke but jokes, like dreams or sexual fantasies, are often messages from the unconscious and can echo dark and deep. I began to think about how my civilisation, complete with tatty little god, could be a framework within which to examine how we look at all cultures and religions. I enjoyed the thought that hovering behind my work is a unifying belief system, just as there is behind Egyptian or Ancient Greek art. It just happens that the person who thought up the belief system behind my work is still around – ie, me.

Perhaps it was hubris, or maybe a dwindling sense of immortality, but my desire to see my own internal culture displayed alongside the great civilisations of history grew stronger the more I thought about it. I had ridiculous fantasies of one of those blockbuster/coach party exhibitions like the British Museum's 1972 sensation The Treasures of Tutankhamun. I had read that the world's most powerful museum was the Metropolitan in New York. I designed a set of shamanic robes embroidered with pots and maps of the Met in the hope that sympathetic magic would influence the high priests of culture into giving me an opportunity.

I was interested in what a museum such as the Met or the British Museum means, as a hub of learning, a world of wonder, a tourist magnet, a tool of cultural diplomacy, a site of pilgrimage, a place to take the kids on a wet bank holiday. I wanted to find out how the context of such an august institution affected the audience's reaction to my art.

So I sent a proposal to Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum. I suggested a show presenting my civilisation alongside objects I would select from the museum collection. I called my idea The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, a title that could perhaps be applied to the whole museum because, after all, tombs are where a large proportion of the BM's collection came from. I also wanted to celebrate the countless anonymous men and women who have crafted the marvels in the collection.

The tomb itself was to be an elaborate iron coffin in the shape of a ship festooned with casts of museum objects. It would be at once an imagined site of pilgrimage, perhaps brought to the museum from some chapel in my mind but also an actual here-and-now destination of pilgrimage for visitors to the museum. (Pilgrimage is another of my ongoing interests but little did I know at the time that this fitted perfectly with the museum's programme, as my show nestles between Treasures of Heaven, about medieval Christian relics, and a coming show about pilgrimage to Mecca, Hajj.) In the heart of the tomb would be the pivotal relic around which the show would revolve, a flint hand axe 250,000 years old, the tool that begat all tools. I wanted to get people thinking about what I call the "reverence machine", the process by which we bestow potency and significance on objects. Things from tombs are always associated with death and so inevitably attain meaningfulness.

I was aware that the museum had a sporadic contemporary art programme but what I was proposing , I think, is the deepest and most prolonged relationship with a contemporary artist in its history so far, involving nearly every part of the organisation.

And what an organisation the British Museum is. It is a huge body with many stakeholders. Decisions – particularly about contemporary art proposals – take a while. There were many emails and meetings. I wore my magic robes whenever I went to the BM. It was a year before I got the final go-ahead and even then I felt like an aircraft rolling slowly along the runway, knowing take-off speed would not be attained unless sponsors were found. Selling such a concept to potential supporters is tricky in a recession but fortunately AlixPartners and Louis Vuitton liked the idea and came on board.

The BM is very keen continually to reassert the relevance of its collection to the contemporary world. I think my proposal very much fitted into that philosophy. I was introduced to Philip Attwood, keeper of coins and medals, who is also chair of the Modern Museum Group. Philip would chaperone me through the bulk of my engagement with the museum. We organised a PowerPoint presentation of my proposal for all those that might be involved. It was not very well attended. I comforted myself with the thought that maybe everyone was too busy but in the back of my mind I began to feel like an imposter. I thought maybe they weren't interested or they felt hostile to a jumped-up potter coming in, making up stuff. I pluck ideas out of the ether then post-rationalise wildly – a very different thought-process from that of an archaeologist or historian. The feeling of ignorance in the presence of world-class experts was not to leave me. Contrary to my anxieties, though, warm invitations started popping into my inbox asking me to come and view suggested objects. Curators seemed to like nothing better than showing off the treasures in their care. Their profound enthusiasm I found infectious and endearing.

When I tell friends that I have been selecting objects from the entire museum collection they imagine I have just been let loose in the stores and allowed to rummage as if I was at a car-boot sale. I did encounter huge rooms stuffed with canoes, drawers full of what looked like rusty nails and corridors lined with the contents of a thousand tombs but the car-boot sale fantasy was a long way from the truth. Each object is stored and packed with great care whether it is a million-year-old flint tool or a Hello Kitty hand-towel. As soon as an object is in the custodianship of the museum it is treated as precious and important. To look at one African textile might take half an hour of finding, donning of gloves, unpacking, checking, repacking. I soon realised that no way was I going to see more than a tiny fraction of the 8 million objects housed in the museum in the flesh.

I sent lists of themes and areas of interest out to all the keepers. I included Grayson Perry staples such as transvestism, bears and motorcycles and also categories that might flesh out the idea of a tomb: entrance guardians, maps of the afterlife, souvenirs of pilgrimage. I wanted all the exhibits to spark off each other, hopefully in the visitor's head. The curators then put together groups of objects to show me that in turn led to chance encounters. Enquiring about eastern European folk costumes led to a bizarre carnival mask, a tour of Islamic ceramics unearthed an earring with ear still attached.

One of my saviours was the online database, an area in which the BM is a pioneer. This meant that I was able to continue my search even when at home recuperating from a bout of kidney stones. Through photographs I could get a good idea of what was in the collection in a much shorter period and then start to whittle it down, make requests and visit the various departments. Some stores would have a distinct smell: the Asian had a lingering tang of incense, the Egyptian gave out wafts of dung.

All the time I was very aware what a privilege I had been granted. I had been given permission to translate a vague fantasy into an increasingly daunting reality. I feared it was a fantasy that perhaps I had not thoroughly thought through, one that involved dozens if not hundreds of other people, many of them extremely knowledgeable. Was I treading on their toes? Had I been given an opportunity they sorely desired? I feared I would be seen as an ignorant interloper by the people who spend their lives learning about and caring for the collection. I thought they might see me as a trendy Thor Heyerdahl, falling into easy but spurious cross-cultural comparisons, misinterpreting objects. These were people whose careers were forged from accurate knowledge collated on many arduous field trips or from years of painstaking research and in I would come for a few hours and say "Ooh I like that, what fun!" Did I see them flinch?

I learned not to use the word "fun" so much and to temper my light-hearted intuitive approach. In the end, though, I had to face up to the fact that I was there because I was an artist and to be confident about that. All I could do was choose the things that fascinated and delighted me. A Georgian-style bonnet from Samoa made of tortoiseshell, a headscarf depicting Middle Eastern leaders (I chose this before the Arab Spring), an ancient Egyptian drawing board complete with sketches left half-finished 3,500 years ago. Over dozens of visits, looking at thousands of objects in the museum stores in Bloomsbury and scattered around London I learned to make my mind up fast. One of the nicest things that anyone said to me during the build up to the show was a comment by no-nonsense exhibitions manager Sarah Scott. "I like working with you, Grayson,", she said. "You decide and you deliver."

The idea that governed my choices was this: instead of responding to history, as I had in past projects, here, in such a vast and varied collection, why not reverse the process and find objects that related to the work I wanted to make? In the end the dialogue was two-way as I could not help being influenced by what I came across on my journey through the bowels of the museum. Some objects reminded me of pieces I had already made, sometimes decades before. Bronze Roman nails with magic inscriptions were too neat a complement not to display with a bronze I made a few years ago called Head of a Fallen Giant pierced by very similar spikes. The colour and texture of a small Tibetan shrine prompted me to dig out and restore a model tower I made from detritus on my kitchen table in 1983. An Indian amulet is the long-lost cousin of a reliquary I designed for the Tate Modern gift shop in 2009.

Over the course of two years I ruthlessly winnowed the entire history of world culture. I eventually had a long list of maybe 1,000 objects that had caught my eye and this I boiled down to the final 170. I could have selected a dozen other completely different exhibitions but I had to decide and also deliver the 30 artworks of my own to go alongside them.

In wanting an exhibition at the BM I did not just want to stage a contemporary art show within its walls. I wanted an exhibition that looked and felt like a historical or ethnographic show. The white cube of the art gallery bestows a certain cultural status on any object, such is the Duchampian power of the context. I feel this has become tired. I want my show to take a knowing squint at the ethnography of the art world by stepping just outside of it. My art would not have the luxury of a "neutral" white space. The work would be displayed in the same way as the British museum's artefacts. I have taken the risk of putting my own works up against a selection of already very potent objects. I could not depend on the sparse glistening temple of the contemporary gallery and the cool intellectual blessing of the art world to legitimise my efforts. My artworks were on their own, standing among things already throbbing with historical, religious and social significance, a Russian icon, a mud and blood power figure from Mali, a badge from the 1961 Aldermaston march. Many of the objects in the museum were made not just for display but have a history of veneration and ritual. Some of my artworks, too, have stories, such as the AM1 motorcycle which I rode around Germany with Alan Measles on a personal pilgrimage, the embroidered cape I wore at the opening of my Japanese exhibition and my youthful ponytail in its own ceramic coffin.

The preparations for my very first exhibition in 1984 consisted of banging a line of nails in roughly the right place and hanging plates on them. I don't think a tape measure or a spirit level was involved and the whole process took less time than the session in the pub afterwards. Even in a top-level contemporary art gallery I might rock up a week or two before the opening and start leaning things against walls and shuffling them around before standing pots on MDF plinths stuck down with museum wax ( My favourite brand is called "Be still my art"). At the BM, I found, things are very different. A show is designed months in advance, down to the last acid-free, LED-lit detail complete with visitor "dwell" times and hierarchies of explanatory text. Security and care of the objects is paramount. Arty composition comes after everything is safe from greasy fingers, humidity or excess light.

In a way the entire exhibition is an artwork utilising the stupendous context of the BM. If I wanted to use that context to the full I needed to be involved in all aspects of the enterprise. I was encouraged to have a say in the design, interpretation, marketing, special events, even visually impaired access. Of course, when dealing with such a behemoth compromises have to be made but I do feel the spirit of my show has been allowed to permeate, right through to the menu in the restaurant. The venue, room 35, has its own shop. If I had more time I could have spent another six months just designing a wider selection of fridge magnets, key rings, bags and headscarves. Souvenirs of pilgrimage are nothing new – I have devoted a section of the show to examples from the collection.

What did I learn in my time hanging out at the BM? That native Americans did satire, that grand tourists sometimes brought a mummy's head home in their baggage and that I still don't like classical statues despite spending a lot of time with the brilliant and funny Ian Jenkins, senior curator in the department of Greek and Roman antiquities. I also learnt that a museum is very different from an art gallery.

Every time I visit the place I am awestruck by the sheer volume and variety of visitors that attend the BM, 6 million last year, running the gamut from Mexican pensioners to Chinese school parties. Neil MacGregor calls it the place "where the world meets the world", and I was given it to play with. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 16 2011

Cornelia Parker selects spectrum of Government Art Collection

Whitechapel Gallery's choice of government-owned art includes works by Andy Warhol and Grayson Perry

A video of a man hanging precariously from a ladder seems somehow appropriate for a collection intrinsically linked to politics and politicians, as does the portrait of Elizabethan statesman William Cecil which recently hung in Ken Clarke's office. A phallic geyser bursting out of the earth may be less obvious.

"People will make their own links," said the artist Cornelia Parker about a new exhibition she has curated, choosing 70 works from the Government Art Collection (GAC).

The show is the second in a series of five at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in which different people are let loose among the 14,000 works in the collection.

Parker said the experience had been fun. She trawled through books and printouts before she decided that she was going to display the works according to colour. "I went through lots of ideas and this one about colour is the one that stuck and it gave me permission to be very eclectic," she said.

It means Old Masters are hanging next to modern work. A portrait of Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, for example, is near to Brews, a strikingly orange work, by pop artist Ed Ruscha and a big photograph in Liberal Democrat yellow by Jane and Louise Wilson which recently hung in Nick Clegg's office.

Other works in the show include Grayson Perry's Print for a Politician, which George Osborne personally chose for his office, a Peter Blake screenprint of the Beatles, previously in the residence of the deputy UK representative at the UN in New York, some colourful William Turnbull screenprints last in the ambassador's residence in Panama and an Andy Warhol portrait of the Queen from 1985.

Parker has also chosen one of her own works, which was one of a suite of six that for 10 years hung in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's wood-panelled dining room while Gordon Brown was there – a feather from the pillow of Sigmund Freud.

Spending cuts means the GAC is not buying anything for two years, the first time it has been forced to stop collecting since the second world war. It has been acquiring works for 113 years and around two-thirds are out on display at government buildings and embassies worldwide at any time.

Next at the Whitechapel after Parker's choice will be the selection of historian Simon Schama, and after that staff from 10 Downing Street will be making the decisions.

GAC selected by Cornelia Parker: Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain is at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, 16 September-4 December. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 23 2011

Turning fifty: the rise of the 'quintastic'

For some it's a chance to unleash their inner party animal; for others it's the age at which they start to creak. But is 50 really the new 34, or is it a licence to wear elasticated waistbands? We ask five "quintastics" born in 1960 what the big five-oh has meant to them

As birthdays go, 50 used to smack of cardigans, nasty coughs and golfing carts. If 40 was the end of youth, "the big five-oh" was the dreaded number that ushered in the twilight years of cruise ships and varifocals.

But with life expectancy for women approaching 82 – and retirement age receding into the distance – 50's resonance and significance as a birthday is changing dramatically. This year, 868,000 in the UK will turn 50; that's 32,000 people more than in 2010. With the over-50s age group increasing so rapidly – according to the Office of National Statistics, someone in the UK turns 50 every 40 seconds – are we finally reassessing our cult of youth?

"We are welcoming an era in which 50 is the new 34," argues Emma Soames, Saga magazine's editor-at-large. The increasingly glamorous image of 50-year-olds has even spawned a new term, the "Quintastics" – thanks, in part, to the visibility of a number of high-profile celebrities who met the event with undiminished glamour in the past year, including Bono, Nigella Lawson, Hugh Grant, Jonathan Ross, Colin Firth, Tilda Swinton and Kristin Scott Thomas.

But it's not all good news. "By the time we are 50, we are definitely in the suburbs of mortality," says Alain de Botton. "After 21, birthdays are really wakes and occasions for mourning – unfairly ascribed a degree of jollity which they absolutely don't require. Yes, older people now look a bit better for a while longer, but essentially, it's pretty much a vale of tears."

Nevertheless there's something newly cool about turning 50. Just ask George Clooney – whose birthday falls in May and who has almost single-handedly ignited a revival of the Cary Grant/Spencer Tracy brand of suave older man – or Barack Obama (50 in August), still the closest thing we've got to a real-life superhero.

As Michelle Pfeiffer said when she reached the landmark: "You just take stock and count your blessings."

Ian Rankin, writer, born 28 April 1960

Fifty was one of the nicest birthdays I've ever had. I had a week-long celebration. They held a big party for me at the Central Library in Edinburgh and afterwards we went to the pub and Kenny Anderson, who's one of my favourite musicians, got out his guitar and started playing me a few songs. That was rather special.

It certainly wasn't as traumatic as turning 40. I remember the last day of being 39 and feeling a mid-life slump. In 2000 I still lacked a bit of self confidence in the books I was writing. They were selling fine, but we were living in a house that wasn't as big as we'd like, on a busy street, my kids were young and you're thinking, "Are they going to grow up OK?" I still felt I hadn't made it professionally. I was no longer new talent: I was caught somewhere between new and established.

But during that decade between 40 and 50, something really changed in my work. The novels that I was writing started to become more political, and I think that was due to having school-age kids – you start to wonder about the world that your generation is leaving behind for their generation. You've got a lot of questions and doubts, and I found a way of exploring those in my fiction. Once you are comfortable in your own skin then you start to look more at the outside world. By the time I turned 50 we'd moved into a bigger house, on a quieter street, and I wasn't nearly so anxious.

I recently went to my first high-school reunion, in Fife where I grew up, with people who had all turned 50. We all said the same thing – that we don't feel any different from when we were 18 or 19. We still have some of the same friends, we still listen to much the same music. The teachers, who had seemed ancient to me back then, didn't look any different today.

Of course there are still dreams that you wish you could fulfil. A lot of 50-year-old males go through this – we yearn for the days when we could still be a successful rock star, or have a really nice car, like an Aston Martin. But some of those dreams you have to shrug off now.

And I'm very conscious that in some parts of Scotland, through factors such as long-term unemployment, poverty, social-housing issues and lifestyle, the mortality rate for men is in its early 50s, particularly in some of the less salubrious parts of Glasgow. I'm lucky that because I don't live in those parts of Scotland I'll maybe see my 60s as well.

Ian Rankin's latest novel is Dark Entries (Titan Books, £14.99)

Grayson Perry, artist, born 24 March 1960

I've been looking forward to turning 50 – now I can feel a bit like an elder. When I was much younger, I had a conversation with an art dealer. She said that their 20s is when artists mess around; their 30s is when they make their decisive works; in their 40s they've made their money (if only that had been true for me – I'm a bit of a late developer in this case); and in their 50s they either consolidate their reputation by churning out the same work endlessly – and there's plenty of artists who do that – or they get a second wind and reinvent themselves.

I'm not sure that's me, but I do get bored with my own work quite easily so when an opportunity to try a new technique or material comes up I'll have a go. I don't want to get pigeonholed as that bloke who did the pots. One of the best parts of the past year has been creating my first real artefact: the Walthamstow tapestry. But my favourite memory of the year was going to Germany on my special motorbike. I took my teddy bear round Bavaria in September with a bunch of friends.

There are definitely more intimations of mortality. I'm not particularly interested in posterity, but there are things I'd like to have a go at and this is the age where experience and energy meet – your experience is going up and your energy's going down. One thing I still want to do is design a building. That has been an aim of mine for a long time and now I've got to get on and do it.

When I was younger, I thought that I'd know I was getting old when I made work that was unembarrassed to be decorative – that by the time I was 70 I'd be doing lovely coloured abstracts in pretty patterns. And I might be going in that direction. I'm not a punk rocker any more, wanting to be angry for the sake of it. That seems very tiresome.

The downside of being 50 is feeling that you are falling apart physically. I was a pretty fit person until very recently and now I'm finding myself creaking too much, the legacy of too many bicycle crashes, and my back is going. The things I like doing best are going to parties and museums, and both those things involve a lot of standing around, which I can't handle any more. Unless I get really drunk.

But I don't think I look too bad for 50. It's an age where all of your chickens come home to roost in terms of how you've looked after yourself and some people who have smoked a lot and drunk a lot can look more like 65. I was watching Mike Leigh's Another Year recently and it struck me that not only does that apply to your physical health but your mental health, too.

For a tranny, getting old can be quite traumatic. When you're really young there's a certain androgyny about your teenage years so you can get away with looking pretty. Then you become more square jawed and bolder and you don't look so pretty in a frock any more.

Now I'm 50 I'm happy to use off-road make-up and I'm much more experimental. I used to agonise about looking feminine and now I don't give a toss. I really enjoy trying a new look.

Unfortunately I haven't yet got to that lovely old age where you really don't give a shit about what other people say, which I'm looking forward to immensely. I still care what people think of me, which is a terrible handicap.

Grayson Perry will be talking on Kinky Sex at the School of Life on 13 February (

Carol Vorderman, TV presenter, born 24 December 1960

My birthday is on Christmas Eve, which means I never get a party. So I decided that for my 50th I was going to use up all the party credit I'd never spent and have 50 celebrations over the year. They're going to include things like wing walking and tank driving and I hope it will be the most fun year of my life.

I had a big wake up-call recently. Until now I've been driven by a workaholic demon and the years start to blend into each other when you're going at such a ridiculous pace. Then I had a health scare last July – it turned out I have arrhythmia, a very common problem, but at the time it gives you a worry. You start losing people in their 50s and you realise none of us can rely on being around at 60. You think: how many summers have I got left?

So this year I've come to appreciate what I have, especially my amazing children, and my mum. When things go wrong, I think: "I'm not going to be down about that." My daughter Katie was 18 in May, and one of the things I say to her is to make the most of every year while she's young and not fret about whether your bum looks big – come 50 you'll be wishing you still had that bum!

I'm purposefully doing things differently. I'm normally too busy to go out much, but now I've started saying yes to many more events – and enjoying them. I've discovered a penchant for all-nighters. It turns out I'm a party animal, and I really enjoy hanging out with students. I love being "Auntie Carol". And our generation is lucky that we can still be stylish at 50. In the old days, it was elasticated waistbands and that was your lot.

What I don't want is for 50 to become the new 40, because that puts a whole new pressure on people again, back into the melee of competition. I'm part of the first full generation of career women, and most of us realised in our 30s or 40s that even if you tried your damnedest you couldn't have it all. But at 50 having it all is not even a question.

Carol Vorderman runs a maths tuition programme at

Linford Christie, athlete, born 2 April 1960

Age ain't nothing but a number. The way I see it, every birthday's a good one, because the more you have, the longer you live. I enjoy being 50 because now I can appeal to both ends of the spectrum – the older ladies and the younger ones…

When our parents were 50 they seemed really old – it was totally different from how it is for us now. We've got it a lot better: medical care, access to exercise, more time. I think 50 is the new 30.

I don't even know what a mid-life crisis is. I still keep myself very fit; I work out almost every day, so, thank God, I have no aches, pains or illnesses and I'm in pretty good shape. I don't feel much different now than I did 20 years ago.

They say wisdom is at the feet of the old and I wish I'd known what I know now when I was younger. I'd rule the world! I've had so much experience, both good and bad, from my life and from my career. The interesting thing is that now I'm an older person, the young athletes I coach tend to confide in me more. It probably helps that I don't look 50. I can do both things, be a mature person or a big kid. And that's what young people like to identify with – someone who is not like their parents.

All my goals in life were athletic so I don't really have any anymore, I just take each day as it comes and don't think too far ahead. What's really changed is that I'm more interested in helping others to achieve. I think at 50 you tend not to be so selfish, you don't think about "me" all the time.

I just want to live long enough to see my young kids grow up to be independent and happy, and to be able to kick a football with the grandkids.

Matthew Bourne, choreographer, born 13 January 1960

Turning 50 last January was exciting and positive – an achievement. I've always loved the idea of getting older. When I was a kid I used to hope I'd live into my late years and become an old eccentric wandering around London.

I think it depends on the world you live in – working in dance has its positive and negative sides: I'm almost always the oldest person in the room, which can make you more aware of your age, but working and being friends with a lot of the dancers, I think, keeps me young.

I had a lot of fun when I was young, I studied dance later in life, and I did Swan Lake when I was 35, which I guess you could call my breakthrough success. I never really expected to be doing what I'm doing in my life – it's been a wonderful surprise.

I haven't been through a mid-life crisis yet. I do think it exists, but it hits people at different times. Turning 30 or 40 can be more fraught, but by the time you turn 50 things relax a little more; I feel very content now.

I've been watching a lot of old footage from the 1940s recently – not of film stars, but of real people – and what's struck me is how old everyone looked. No grooming, or looking after oneself. It seemed like everyone just gave up after they got married and had children.

What I've become aware of since turning 50 is that I question what I'm going to wear a lot more. Am I too old to wear this or that? I fear that I'll be that older guy in the room that everyone rolls their eyes at and thinks, "What has he got on?"

In my mind's eye, I'm still a lot younger than I actually am. I don't mind looking my age: I don't want to change the way I look, but I do avoid looking in shop windows these days. I take good care of myself: creams, lotions, anti-wrinkle this and that. If I don't do it now, it's probably not worth doing it at all!

Getting older only matters if you don't feel good in yourself. You can use it as a reason to celebrate, or a reason to get depressed. For me, it felt great – a definite time to celebrate.

Matthew Bourne's Cinderella is on tour until 21 May ( © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 02 2010

Grayson on his Bike – review

Radio 4

The last thing Grayson on his Bike (Radio 4) ought to have been was boring. Artist Grayson Perry took his childhood teddy bear, Alan Measles, to Germany. Dressed as a young girl ("puffy sleeves, big petticoats, white frilly socks"), Perry toured the country, contemplating his formative years. In those, Alan Measles was a key figure: "He was the benign dictator of my fantasy world, and in some ways, the carrier of my manhood." He fought off the Germans in many a battle, we heard.

When he spoke about the bear's significance, and the impact of a stepfather moving into his household ("he fitted the role of the Nazis in my sub-conscious quite well"), this was engrossing stuff. But the rest of it was either a puzzle – really, why the trip to Germany, and why the particular locations? – or indulgent silliness. The bear was annoyingly voiced ("as a young teddy, I was faced with a grave crisis in Grayson's life") and we also heard from Perry's wife, sounding nonplussed. "I can't take it particularly seriously," she said in a long-suffering voice.

It was all nicely produced, and probably seemed a great idea on paper. On radio, though, it grated, and was dull despite all the quirkiness. Worse still, the programme had that deadly feeling of being really quite smitten with itself. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 10 2010

Queen of arts

It's 25 years since Victoria Miro set up her first gallery in London. She's lived through the lean times, the YBAs and a new era of global markets and has quietly become one of the most influential dealers in Britain. It's all down to intuition, she says, in this rare interview

Grayson Perry, the Turner prize-winning artist who, according to Wikipedia, is "known mainly for his ceramic vases and cross dressing", says: "When I was younger, I was always really envious of the artists who were with Victoria Miro." Perry had been with the Anthony d'Offay gallery in the 1990s but had "been feeling a bit left on the shelf" when the painter, Peter Doig, recommended him to Miro.

"I would always hear good things from her artists about how well she treated them," he says, laughing, "and I can now confirm that everything I heard was true. She is not interested in neophilia, the insatiable hunger for the new that is one of the terrible afflictions of contemporary society. She takes the long view, which is what an artist really needs from a gallerist."

Victoria Miro is the quiet woman of British art: visionary but not in the grandstanding way of some of her more famous counterparts. Or, as Grayson Perry puts it, "not tainted with the hoo-ha and the celebrity glitz that, at the height of the YBA era, almost consumed the art". Her gallery began life in 1985 in 750 sq ft of space on Cork Street; it now takes up 17,000 sq ft on the edge of Hoxton: a metaphor, then, for the trajectory of British art over the last three decades.

She is currently celebrating, albeit in a quiet way, her gallery's 25th – and her own 65th – birthday. In acknowledgement of these landmarks, she has decided for the first time to give an in-depth interview. ??First, though, she insists on walking me around her latest exhibition, In the Company of Alice, a wonderful group show that features portraits by the late figurative painter Alice Neel, and responses to her work by the likes of Chris Ofili, Doig, Chantal Joffe, Marlene Dumas and Elizabeth Peyton.

Although she died 26 years ago, Alice Neel, who has become something of a feminist icon because of her bohemian lifestyle and her unflinching dedication to her work, is Miro's current passion. "We put on the first European show of her work in 2004," she says, proudly, "and, in the six years since, she has come in from the cold." This is indeed the case, as evinced by the Whitechapel gallery's career-spanning Alice Neel retrospective that opened on 8 July.

Her decision to take on Neel's artistic estate was made after much thought, and it says much about Miro's way of working: her combination of a deep love for, and knowledge about, art and her sharp business acumen. "She really does care about art in an almost old-fashioned way," elaborates Grayson Perry, "But her aesthetic judgments and her ability to nurture demanding people are matched by a very astute business sense. She's low-key but she has always made some incredibly smart moves."

Among those smart moves was Miro's showing of the Disasters of War series in 1993, the first solo show by Jake and Dinos Chapman, which she later sold to the Tate. In 2002, her gallery was selected as one of the 18 most important international art galleries by the Royal Academy for its Galleries Show. Miro's keen eye for new talent was highlighted when, in 2004, she hosted the first London show of a recent graduate, Raqib Shaw. The entire show – 18 drawings and five paintings – sold out. Her stable now includes Doig, Ofili and Perry as well as the film-maker Isaac Julien, the painter Chantal Joffe and the conceptual artist Idris Khan. She also represents one of the world's leading art photographers, William Eggleston.

And, although the name Victoria Miro has not impinged on the public consciousness in the same way as, say, the name Jay Jopling, she has had the odd – utterly unwelcome – moment of media controversy. Way back in Cork Street in 1987, just two years into her career, and two years after Charles Saatchi had also opened his first groundbreaking gallery on Boundary Road, north London, Miro hosted a show by the German artist and political activist Hans Haacke in her small gallery. Entitled Global Marketing, it consisted of a large black cube on which Haacke had detailed Saatchi & Saatchi's various business dealings in apartheid-era South Africa.

"Charles walked though the gallery in silence as I recall," she says, "but various friends of his came and they were all very angry. Charles never set foot in the gallery again for seven years and, to this day, he has never mentioned the show."

With the benefit of hindsight, does she think it was a good idea to give Haacke's fervently anti-corporate imagination such free rein? "Oh yes. Artists do what they have to do. And I think Charles would understand that. As a gallerist, you can advise them but you cannot ever get in the way of the work."

In 2005, Miro found herself in the middle of a media firestorm when she sold a series of paintings by Chris Ofili called The Upper Room to the Tate for £705,000. It was revealed that Ofili was also a serving trustee of the Tate, and in the ensuing controversy, a newspaper published a private email from Miro to Tate director Nicholas Serota. It acknowledged the "sensitive" nature of the transaction and laid bare the kind of hustling that is common when private galleries do business with major institutions, but which is usually conducted in secret: "There is also extra pressure as Chris is getting married next week and I suspect he may be less willing than previously to wait for an extended period in terms of finance."

The work did go to the Tate, though only after Miro, at Serota's request, raised £300,000 towards the purchase from five different sources, all of whom insisted on anonymity. The Daily Telegraph's art critic attempted to put the purchase in perspective, describing it as "the bargain of the century" and congratulating Miro and Ofili for "acting not in their own interests but for the public good". In 2006, however, the Charity Commission censured the Tate for breaking its rules over the purchase – though it cleared them of breaking any criminallaw.

Now that the dust has settled, what is her view on the sale of The Upper Room? "It is a masterpiece and it had to be placed in a major public collection." she says, "Despite huge interest in the work internationally, Chris and I wanted it to remain in this country. There was no way the works could be split up. Naturally I did all I could to help secure its long-term future. It belongs to the nation now, and long after you and I are gone, it will continue to give pleasure and inspiration to generations to come."

This may sound a trifle disingenuous but, looking at the purchase in purely monetary terms, the Tate, despite Miro's hard bargaining on behalf of her artist, does seem to have landed quite a bargain. Two weeks ago, a single painting by Ofili sold at Christie's for almost £1.9m.

We have lunch in a large, airy space designed by the architect Claudio Silvestrin to complement Trevor Horne's adjacent two-storey gallery, looking out over Miro's landscaped portion of the stretch of canal known as the Wenlock Basin. ??It is difficult to believe you are in inner-city London just a stone's throw from the noisy City Road.

In person, Miro lives up to her reputation as the "grand dame of British art". She is soft-spoken and effortlessly charming in that understated way that betokens a particular kind of well-bred, upper-middle-class, English background.

Surprisingly, her father was a stallholder in London's old Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market and she was educated at Copthall grammar school in north London. Her parents were art lovers, and the annual family holidays were cultural forays to Rome, Venice and Florence. She was "obsessed with making art even as a child" and eventually attended Slade art school with ambitions to become a full-time painter.

"The artistic urge is that one has to do it however much of a struggle it is, but I did seem to lose that urge somewhat once I had children," she says, wistfully. "Unlike today, where people seem to miraculously do everything, I was immersed in family. The creativity just seemed to disappear. It was a very quiet period for me, but I liked that, too."

She has been married to her husband, Warren Miro, a businessman, for 40 years. He is not directly involved in the running of the gallery but oversaw the building design of the place we are sitting in. They have a son, Oliver, and a daughter, Alex, who were once babysat by Jake Chapman and Sam Taylor-Wood. Last year, Miro became a grandmother when Alex give birth to a daugher, Sophia.

For a while in the early 1970s, Miro taught art in secondary schools in Slough and Battersea. "I quite liked teaching but, looking back, I can see that what I was really fascinated by was gallery life in London. I used to go to all these strange little galleries that are now long gone – Beaux Arts, Robert Fraser – and think that maybe someday they might be interested in my work."

The memory of that time and those strange little places haunts her still, but not in the way you might expect. "I always remember that feeling of optimism I had back then when I see students come into my gallery with their work. They are always so interested and hopeful. In a way, I have come to see that well of expectation as very sad somehow."

She sighs and sips her mint tea. You wonder, just for a moment, how she negotiates the cut-throat world of global art dealing, but sense, too, the self-belief, the steeliness that attends her famous intuition. "It really is a harsh world, the art world, much more so than it was when I started out," she says. "You have to be incredibly strong and ambitious as well as gifted." Or, I think, you have to employ someone to be strong and ambitious on your behalf.

In 1985, when she took over Robert Fraser's gallery space in Cork Street, the London art world was, she says, "a very small world, almost a village". Fraser, though, who had hung out with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the late 60s, and is the subject, alongside a handcuffed Mick Jagger, of Richard Hamilton's famous painting, Swingeing London, was one of its bohemian aristocrats.

"I met him when he was dying from Aids, alas. I remember that, when he handed over the keys, he said: 'You'll never make a contemporary art gallery work in this country.' It was very sad, his sense of disillusionment."

Miro initially concentrated on what might be called conceptual minimalism with artists such as Richard Tuttle, Antony Gormley and the late Ian Hamilton Finlay, a close friend whose artistic estate she still oversees. She tells me how the famously difficult Finlay successfully sued the famously opinionated critic Brian Sewell, for writing that he was not a real artist because other people made his work. "Given all that's passed between, it seems almost quaint, doesn't it?"

Finlay also took objection to a negative review by the art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, and insisted Miro ban him from the gallery for ever more. "It's not an ideal situation for a new gallery to have to ban a reviewer, but Ian was adamant," she says, giggling. "Waldemar took it quite well, considering, but he does remind me of it every time we meet."

In the late 80s, Miro opened a second gallery in Florence where, she says, "there were no other big contemporary art galleries to tread on the toes of". In 1990, though, as the recession hit hard, she was forced to close it order to survive. "I tried my best to keep it going but, in the end, I had to close it to keep the London gallery going." How bad was that recession for the art market, exactly? "Oh, very bad. The buying and selling just stopped. Then the Japanese art market, which had been so buoyant, collapsed. It was very severe. An absolute shock to the system."

Is she worried for the current gallery as we enter another what looks like being another prolonged period of austerity? "Oh, it's very different now," she says jauntily. "There are so many strong markets internationally: Korea, China, Hong Kong, South America. The art market is truly global now and is changing constantly. And the gallery is much bigger and more secure. Back then, it was just myself and my assistant, Clare, who is still with me. We had to watch the budget so closely that we could never afford to have an illustration on our invitation cards, just plain text. People thought," she says, chuckling, "that we were being minimalist but really it was just being frugal."

In the 90s, of course, the British art world changed dramatically and in a way few could have predicted. Signalled by Freeze, the now famous group show curated by Damien Hirst in July 1988, the coming of the YBA era saw the London art "village" that Victoria Miro operated in suddenly become a market-driven megalopolis. "I was aware from the beginning that a change was in the air," she says, "mainly because I had Jake (Chapman) working as technician for me and he'd come to art fairs with me to install and you could just sense something was stirring. What, exactly, was hard to say. Initially, there was this incredible energy and then that started translating into work of real substance."

In the era of White Cube and Gagosian, Saatchi and the shark, did she feel at all pressurised to keep up, to go global and simply follow the market? She shakes her head,

"I suppose my progression was more organic and definitely artist-driven. I moved from Cork Street because the artists felt limited by the small space. They even took an active part in looking for, and helping to make, the new space. Then, I took on a partner, Glenn Scott Wright, in 1997. It was all very much artist-led. It wasn't me thinking, Oh, Jay's getting a bigger space and Larry's coming over. No, that's not really my way."

In her time, Miro has seen the London gallery scene change in two ways. Commercial galleries like her own, once the haunt of dealers and insiders, now attract visitors in much the same way as their bigger, state-funded galleries do. (One of her early group shows in Wharf Road attracted 4,000 visitors.) Post-Saatchi, too, the way galleries do business has not just become more global, but more competitive, more combative and more macho.

"It's so market-driven now and most of the mega-dealers are men, and some of them can be quite aggressive and persistent when they go after an artist. It's hard when you lose an artist to another, bigger dealer. You do feel wounded by the defection, but it's the nature of being a gallery and you just have to come to terms with it. I am what I am – a woman dealer. I know it's a cliché but I do think women approach the work on a much more intuitive level; it's less about market and machismo and more about artistic value."

The artist and film-maker Isaac Julien confirms Miro's view and stresses her commitment to her stable. "She is a rare breed in the sense that she has an almost cerebral relationship to the work that comes from a deep passion for art. And maybe that, in turn, comes from once being an artist herself. Her success is refreshing because it runs counter to the completely market-driven world we find ourselves in now."

I ask Victoria Miro, in conclusion, who has been her biggest inspiration? She does not hesitate for a second in answering. "Oh, Betty Parsons, definitely," she says, referring to the pioneering postwar New York gallery owner. "She was amazing, so single-minded. She had this incredible stable of artists at one point – Rothko, Pollock, Barnett Newman – but they had this meeting with her where they told her not to take on any new, younger artists. She just went her own way and continued to do what she wanted to do, so they all left. To me, she was the ideal gallery owner, always moving forward, always following her instinct, whatever the cost."

She sounds, I say, quite familiar. There is a smile and an almost imperceptible nod. The quiet visionary of British art remains, after 25 pioneering years, just that: quiet and visionary. Betty, you feel, would be proud. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 07 2010

The best of the Hay festival 2010

In Hay-on-Wye this year Ian McEwan got friendly with a pig, Christopher Hitchens reviewed his brother's book and Pervez Musharraf hinted at a bid for power. We round up the best of the Hay festival 2010

At the Hay festival 2010 the sun shone and the rain fell as a veritable galaxy of stellar names from literature, art and politics descended on the village of Hay-on-Wye: from Ian McEwan to James Lovelock, and from Roy Hattersley to Fatima Bhutto.

On our daily Haycast, we heard David Mitchell explain why formal experimentation is a young man's game, Nadine Gordimer claim her intimate life for herself and the people with whom it was lived, and Christopher Hitchens give his verdict on his brother Peter's latest book. While on stage, the environmental writer Fred Pearce said fears of overpopulation were nonsense, Helen Dunmore warned of the dangers of fictionalising history, the education secretary Michael Gove offered the historian Niall Ferguson a job, and Pervez Musharraf hinted at a possible bid for power.

We asked festivalgoers to send us their pictures of the Hay festival, and about the books they were actually reading. We also went in search of the festival beyond the canvas, setting authors Francesca Simon, Val McDermid, and Grayson Perry the challenge of finding a secondhand gem for less than a tenner.

But with the festival coming to a close, we returned to fundamentals, following the visitors to Hay-on-Wye in the quest which underlies the entire event – the search for used books, new books, half-forgotten books ... the search for that perfect book: the one you will be reading next. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 02 2010

Bookshop challenge

What does it take to bag a book bargain in Hay? Andrew Dickson packed artist Grayson Perry off to the Hay Cinema Bookshop

April 17 2010

Philippa Perry: Couch Fiction | Interview

Her new book, Couch Fiction, is an attempt to demystify therapy - and tell some jokes too. Philippa Perry talks about 'excavations of the mind', domestic class war, and why she chose a transvestite club for her first date with Grayson

Philippa Perry lives in a beautiful house in a beautiful Georgian square deep in smartest north London. She has owned it for 25 years and knows many of her neighbours. "There's a bit of a row going on at the moment!" she says, in a hammy whisper soon after my arrival. "There's a split between the north of the square and the south." The schism is, I gather, the result of a planting arrangement – it has something to do with bulbs or possibly shrubs – and, according to Perry, it is "straight out of Mapp and Lucia". She looks delighted at the thought. Perry is mad for Mapp and Lucia, EF Benson's bitchy village ladies, and now I'm sitting opposite her, this passion makes perfect sense: somehow, I can just hear her shouting: "O reservoir!" at her clients as they exit the building.

Well, perhaps not her clients. But the window cleaner, certainly, and the boiler repair man. With her clients, I expect she has to damp herself down, throw a tea towel over the cheery, combative and slightly camp sparks that usually fly from her person. Perry is, you see, a psychotherapist and she sees her clients here in the beautiful square. She sits in one velvet chair, the client sits in another, and for 50 minutes, they get the best part of her: the warm, wise and questing part whose definition of sanity is: "How am I feeling? How do I express that? What are my needs? How can I get them met?" Jokes and catchphrases have no place in her consulting room: they are a distraction, a stinky red herring. "When I first had therapy myself, I always used to keep making jokes," she says. "My therapist would go [adopts universal eastern European shrink accent], 'I do not zink zat eez funny!'" She hoots with laughter at the memory.

In her new book, however, there are plenty of jokes. Couch Fiction, illustrated by her friend Junko Graat, is a comic strip. It tells the story of a case history in the professional life of Patricia Philips, a psychotherapist who lives in a house that looks remarkably like that of the woman who created her, though the Couch Fiction home, placidly rendered in black and white, does not perhaps have quite the same weird energy as Perry's. (Its narrow hall is painted such an intense shade of red, it's like standing in an artery; you want to press a cheek against its wall, the better to feel its pulse.) She wrote the book because she wanted to demystify therapy and so – for once – jokes were wholly appropriate.

"I wrote the book I would have liked to read myself 30 years ago, when I was still floundering around reading Scott Peck," she says. "I've always loved case studies, from Susie Orbach on, but I'm dyslexic and I got into reading myself through Asterix. So I love comics, too. And then I discovered Harvey Pekar!" She sighs happily. Pekar is the angst-ridden author of the comic book series, American Splendor. "It hit me like a punch: marry Harvey Pekar with psychotherapy!"

She drew the first draft herself, all ghostly outlines and wobbly furniture. These sketches she then passed to Graat who, when she used to work as Perry's gardener, would leave delightful sequential drawings for her to come home to, detailing how the cat had been sick or whatever. Graat put everything in order. Even so, it wasn't easy to sell the book. Perry is married to the Turner prize-winner Grayson Perry, with whom she has a teenage daughter, Flo, but all the name-dropping in the world couldn't get her a publishing deal. "I did try. I'm not stupid!" In the end, though, this turned out to be a good thing. Couch Fiction's appearance between hard covers is testament to its wit and good sense rather than the fame of her transvestite potter husband – though finding the right title helped, too. "I wanted to call this book 'Interruptions of Contact'," Perry writes in her introduction. "But the publisher quite rightly pointed out that it sounded obscure, negative and could be mistaken for coitus interruptus."

The case in question concerns a young, well-to-do barrister, James, who comes to Pat seeking help for his kleptomania (Perry chose kleptomania for the simple reason that this is a condition yet to present itself in her real-life consulting room). Naturally, his thievery is a symptom of a deeper malaise and it is one that Pat eventually traces back to his childhood, which was cold and dysfunctional. Thanks to the conventions of the strip form, however, not only do we hear their conversations, we also see (oh, the beauty of the think bubble!) what therapist and client choose to keep to themselves. At one point, for instance, James confesses that, unused to having such an intimate, non-physical relationship with a woman, he has started having sexual fantasies about his therapist. "Oh?" says Pat. He tells her that he pictures himself coming into her room: she is crying, he comforts her, they end up "on the sofa together". But this is not quite the truth. The next frame – a giant think bubble – shows a naked Patricia biting down on a volume of Freud while James gives her "a right old seeing to".

Beneath many of the pages are brief notes explaining some of therapy's terms and processes (transference, counter-transference, intervention). In these, Perry's tone is sometimes wry and ironic, sometimes sombre and straight. Below a picture of James arriving at Pat's house for his first appointment, she writes: "I wonder how much research has been done on the impact of recycling bins and their contents on the doorsteps of therapists' premises?" Below the picture of Patricia sprawling naked on her consulting room sofa, she writes: "It isn't easy to find a universally causal explanation for erotic transference."

Perry was determined not to make her therapist an all-seeing, God-like figure. Sometimes, Pat finds her client difficult, even dislikable and sometimes, in their conversations, she seems merely to be feeling her way. "Therapy isn't about the therapist knowing more," she says. "It's more about the therapist being used to evacuations – no! that's the wrong word! – I mean excavations of the mind."

Nor does she want, as an author, to come over as some proselytiser for therapy; she would never claim superior intellectual or emotional status simply by dint of the fact that she has been – is this a word? – therapised. "There is a form of belief that says the world is divided in two: into those who are in psychotherapy and those who need to be. I don't subscribe to that view. Some people can manage very well without it. Some people might be able to manage without self-awareness as well. Maybe they're not in the slightest bit fucked up. But it works for me."

She came to therapy relatively late: at 53, she has been in private practice for only 10 years. "I used to read Freud a lot. But it was just a hobby. I was really resisting it. Then I volunteered for the Samaritans and when I'd been there a while, I realised: I'm not being altruistic; I came here to see whether it was safe to explore feelings. I had a fairly stiff-upper-lip upbringing in which, if you didn't talk about it, it would get better. Through the Samaritans, I learned not only that it was safe; it really seemed to be useful. It didn't harm people; it turned them around. I was very taken with the power of it. I set up an agony page on the internet. It doesn't exist any more, I'm pleased to say. When the problems got too complex, I decided to train – and that meant having therapy myself."

In Couch Fiction, James is a bit obnoxious at first. Are there some clients whom Perry likes more than others? "What a question! No one is born annoying. You're trained to be annoying. Someone who might not be engaging socially might be a more interesting client because they have more faulty training to unpick. If you're a baby who was left to cry, you may never have learned to soothe yourself. You learn to soothe yourself because your mum picks you up and says, 'There, there!' That sort of person will need to find someone to help them self-soothe. That sort of person as a friend... well, you don't want too many of them on the phone. But as clients, they're interesting."

Can everything be traced back to one's parents? I sometimes think this is dubious and for this reason I liked the bit in Ian McEwan's new novel, Solar, when his central character, Michael Beard, who is a scientist, rants about the trite ways in which psychotherapeutic narratives bend to fit the facts (the orphan, fearing loss, grows up to be a commitment-phobe; but he could just as easily, and for the same reason, grow up to be a commitment-phile). "Perhaps it's clearer to say that things are down to one's relationship with one's environment," says Perry. "I think I was soothed by my mum. But I was an undiagnosed dyslexic and I was always being told I was stupid. That had a huge effect. Most people have got a script from their parents, or from their childhood, and it takes a lot of work to rewrite it."

Isn't focusing so closely on one's own feelings selfish? "It sounds selfish. But your feelings are always there and they will always come out. We're all familiar with the posh aunt at tea who says [she does another posh Mapp and Lucia voice], 'Now, does anybody want jam?' She's sitting there with a scone and no jam and she'd save everyone a lot of trouble if she just said, 'Pass the jam, please.'"

I've always wondered if being a therapist ruins one's social life. I don't mean that when people find out what you do for a living they immediately start dribbling their woes all over the asparagus, though I expect that does happen. But you must see symptoms – insanity, even – everywhere. Perry laughs. "Yes. Sometimes, I go too far in a social situation." She puts her hands in front of her eyes, sticks out her index fingers and moves her head from side to side, slowly, like a Dalek. "Grayson says, 'You've got the guns out!' If someone splits off into another character, other people might think he's arsing around. I think: that's interesting. He keeps turning into a five-year-old. So I'll ask: what happened to you when you were four? They usually tell me their mother died or something." Has her work made her unshockable? Not remotely. "I'm shocked by the way people treat other people. I'm shocked and I'm sad."

With her outsize lemon-lime spectacles and her groovy, asymmetric bob, Philippa Perry could not be anything other than a born-and-bred member of the arty/liberal north London intelligentsia. Or so I imagined before I met her. But, like a cat, she has had several lives. She is from Warrington originally. "My mother was from a cotton mill family. When I say 'cotton mill', they owned one. My father inherited an engineering company and a farm. I grew up in the country and I'm not scared of cows." Was it a nice childhood? "It was all right... when the sun was out. But I was sent to boarding school at 10 and I hated that. The school motto was 'That our daughters might be as the polished corners of the temple' and I just never understood it."

She left at 15 and was promptly dispatched to finishing school in Switzerland. "Everybody there was posher than me. They were from Scotland or the south, not from the [she enunciates her next two words crisply] manufacturing classes." Afterwards, she went to secretarial college – an even worse idea, given her dyslexia. Then she got lucky. Having already been sacked from several typing jobs, she pitched up at a solicitor's office where someone grasped that, in spite of her awful typing, she was bright and "good fun" and she became a litigation clerk. By now, she was living in Oxford. "All those lovely boys! So I got a husband." A rather more conventional husband than now? "I don't know whether anyone's conventional when you get to know them." The marriage lasted a long time – she married in 1978, aged 21, and divorced in 1987– but, deep down, she knew it was wrong. "Yes, I did. But I had quite an Edwardian upbringing. My parents would have been unhappy if we'd just lived together." Together, she and her husband the Oxford graduate ran the business she had by then set up, a company that serviced legal clerks.

The firm did well, but the work was boring. So she sold it. What next? "Out of the frying pan and into the fire. I went to work for McDonald's. The Oxford Circus branch. I was manager within two months." Crikey. Why McDonald's? She lowers her voice conspiratorially. "It was class tourism. I suppose it was my gap year. I learned a lot. I used to catch myself thinking: oh, that chap's quite clever. Then I'd have to say to myself: well, why on earth wouldn't he be? But the hours were terrible and after a year I was fed up with the smell of fat. I was responsible for a turnover of £2m, but still, working there was me not taking myself seriously, I think."

She went back to secretarial work. "I was at Linklaters, as a paralegal, and it was brilliant. It was the 1980s, there was a lot of money about. I had a lovely Amex card and a suit from Jaeger with matching navy accessories. The overtime was so good, Chris and I were able to buy this house. We divorced soon after, and I had to pay him off, but by then I'd inherited a bit of money from my family. So then I thought: I know, I'll go to art school! I was coming up to 30 and I realised I had to find a baby father. Did I want to be married to a solicitor? Not really. So I went to Middlesex Poly, where I did fine art."

She loved the course, but the other students drove her mad. They never turned up to 9 o'clock life classes, which made her furious, because she was always there, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Worse, there was not a suitable "baby father" anywhere in sight. Determined to throw her net even wider, she enrolled at creative writing evening classes at City University and it was there that – phew – she met Grayson.

What was he like? "He was a show-off. I thought: you're the last person I'm going out with. But he was very good-looking. He had this shock of blond hair, and a red leather jacket, because he used to arrive by motorbike. He was very funny, too. We had to read our diaries out. Mine was all about failed romances at art school. His was about the neo-naturists or something." They have now been together for 22 years. "We got on and we've never stopped getting on. My experience of meeting Grayson was: there is something in you that I need and I need to hold on to it." What was it? "It's his ability to be himself. I like that and I've learnt from it."

You might be wondering what on earth she means by this: people sometimes speculate that Perry's transvestism – his tranny alter ego is a little girl, Claire – is just an act, or an aspect of his art. But read his memoir, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl, or talk to the artist himself (I've done both), and you realise this is quite wrong: the cross-dressing began when he was still a troubled teenager and when he describes how it made him feel – sexy, elated, more free – his words crackle with electricity, just like the cheap polyester dresses he used to pick up at jumble sales. On the page, and in person, there is something so authentic about him you can almost smell it. He's a working-class heterosexual who just happens to like wearing pretty frocks. The only problem is that this particular aspect of "being oneself" is not necessarily attractive in a husband – or it wouldn't be for most women.

I want to discuss this but, at first – stinky red herring alert! – Perry ignores the dresses and talks instead about class. "It's a mixed-race marriage," she says. "Grayson finds my middle-class rules a little difficult at times. He's allowed to run around the house naked, but he's not allowed to run around the house in trousers with no top on. I won't have it! This is not a miner's cottage!" Did he confess his dress-wearing straight off? "Our first date was: do you want to come to a private view or do you want to come to a transvestite club? Ooh, a transvestite club! It sounded much more fun than a private view." Didn't she find his transvestism... difficult? "Not at all. We were friends for six months before there were any shenanigans, so I was well aware of it before we became an item. It might be tricky for some women. If they've been deceived, or find out a year in, that must be really difficult." Did she make rules about when he could and could not wear dresses? "NO!" She sounds like she thinks this is a really daft question. "That's never bothered me. That's not part of my class thing, my Hyacinth Bucket thing, is it?"

Not to play the therapist myself, but I'm not sure that I entirely buy this and, a few weeks after our interview, I email her, telling her how, on my tape, her voice tightens when I bring up Grayson. Should I take what she says at face value? Apparently, I should. "I think it is fantastic that Grayson is fully himself, even when that self might be considered unconventional. I fully support him dressing however he wants. It's fabulous, and it develops, and it's interesting to witness that. And I'm proud of him and proud to be at his side." In photographs taken with him dressed as Claire, she always looks so jolly. "Jollity," she writes back. "The result of many years on the therapist's couch. When you learn to access more of your feelings, you have more awareness of all of them and that includes laughing. Plus, Grayson is very good company and going out and staying in with him is fun. I think that could account for some of it."

One last thing. In his book, Grayson writes that he finally broke with his mother in 1990, when he took Philippa to meet her: "My mother attacked Phil and said, 'You must be desperate to marry a transvestite.'" How did that make her feel? "I can't remember. It was such a long time ago. A bit shocked, probably. But then why would she be happy that her son is a tranny? People on the whole don't want their kids to be too different from the norm. It's understandable that she's angry that his girlfriend supports her son's trannyism. I hope I have answered all your questions now."

After she and Grayson had been together for 10 years, he, too, started having therapy, an experience he refers to enthusiastically in his book. Was it her idea? "Yes. I was in therapy and I didn't want to be his therapist. 'You need it,' I told him. 'I'm fine,' he said. So I thought: right! And I withdrew my therapy services." Oh, that old trick, I say, not meaning anything in particular. Perry's marvellous eyes widen. "No, not THAT old trick! I didn't withdraw THAT! I just stopped asking him how things made him feel, and it worked, he got a therapist, though then I felt terribly jealous." In his book, he comes over as very sane. "He is reasonably sane. Wearing a dress is a sign of sanity. He feels like he really wants to wear one, so he does; it doesn't hurt anybody. It's a super-sane thing to do." She has never worried about him, least of all about his abilities as an artist: "He is a genius."

In 2003, others noticed this genius and Grayson won the Turner prize. Suddenly, he and his pots were everywhere. Did this change things? "Yes. Obviously, our life got very exciting. We'd get invited to lots of dos. And I took it as a personal compliment. I like to twist things round. I discovered him! I'm a good picker! But the downside was that suddenly everyone wanted to talk to Grayson. They weren't interested in me. That did knock me over. I'd be at a party and someone would say, 'I've always wanted to meet your husband.' This wasn't an insult, it was a compliment – so why did I feel so weird? The other thing is that when it all happened, being a slightly insecure person, I thought: oh, he won't want me any more. But he does, so that's nice."

Though outwardly unusual, the two of them live an ordinary, rather cosy kind of a life. She describes it to me. Philippa spends her day with her patients and then flops down in front of Countdown; Grayson spends his day in his studio listening to Radio 4 and then comes hoping to chat, only to find she is all talked out. At weekends, they go to their cottage, where they grow vegetables. Their daughter, Flo, is 17 and is hoping to read chemistry at Durham University and they are preparing themselves for empty nest syndrome. Together, they are growing older. A few weeks ago, Grayson celebrated his 50th birthday with a big party, at which he treated guests to some advice he received from an elderly gentleman whom he met when he gave the annual William Morris lecture. After 50, he told the assembled company, "a man should never pass a lavatory, never trust a fart and never waste an erection".

Philippa relayed this cherishable maxim to me in another email, which was a shame, really: I would have loved to hear her tell it in person, her throaty laughter bouncing off her consulting room walls like sunshine. I still don't know exactly what I think about therapy. But she is a tonic even if you're not her patient. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 18 2010

Quilty pleasures: V&A exhibition celebrates the material world

A new V&A exhibition traces the history of British quilting, showcasing elegant bedspreads from the 1700s as well as contemporary designs by Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry

January 27 2010

Why Britain's best artists leave

How can London be the capital of global art when our celebrity culture makes it such a miserable place for artists to live and work?

Chris Ofili, whose retrospective has just opened at Tate Britain, is just one of the British artists who have chosen to live abroad to get away from the madness of art's celebrity culture – including such serious figures as Tacita Dean and Steve McQueen.

So here's a paradox. Constantly, the media tell us that London is this century's Manhattan or Paris, that Britain is the world's leading art capital. Yet I believe that in Manhattan in the 1960s you would actually have found artists living and working – and if Picasso had fled back to Barcelona, the Musée Picasso wouldn't have been in Paris. Art capitals are traditionally places where artists thrive. But what kind of artist really thrives on our brand of instant celebrity?

As a critic, you forget what celebrity means. It's seeing people coo over someone who seems very ordinary to me, such as Grayson Perry – someone I've sometimes been rude about, sometimes praised, but certainly never mistaken for the kind of artist I, personally, would go weak at the knees to meet.

Celebrity is such a small thing compared with real fame. For me, a famous artist is one whose works have secured them a true place in art history, whose talent is mysterious and personality elusive. Jasper Johns is famous; Perry is a celebrity.

A celebrity is someone who is "like us" – just watch all those talent shows on TV – which by definition limits their genius. A celebrity, to have democratic appeal, really has to be a bit second rung, a bit ordinary. It's quite a contradiction. You have to catch the eye and yet you can't intimidate people with supreme abilities.

The purest expression of modern Britain's celebrity art culture, and its logical conclusion, was Antony Gormley's participatory artwork on the Fourth Plinth. Here was the mediocrity of the celebrity culture made monumental – everyone an artist, everyone a star, not a trace of imagination in sight.

No wonder the real artists run for their lives. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 13 2009

All will be revealed

Fancy bagging an Anish Kapoor or Yoko Ono for just £40? Take a look at the pocket-size artworks donated to this year's Secret Postcards sale

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