A stitch in time
There was a time when tapestries were afforded a much higher status than mere paintings. They were significantly more expensive than any other form of art with the finest tapestries being designed by leading artists and then richly woven over many months. Over 2,450 tapestry wall hangings were listed in the inventory after Henry VIII’s death in 1547, and when they were valued for sale during the Civil War many were priced at thousands of pounds – far in excess of any other item in the collection.
Grayson Perry’s tapestries, meanwhile, were made for A House for Essex- a building designed by Perry and FAT Architecture, and well known through the Channel 4 programme Grayson Perry’s Dream House– but, just like the tapestries of yore, they are also easily transported and currently on their first national tour, which will seen them displayed at the Shipley Art Gallery in the coming months. Unlike Henry VIII’s collection of biblical scenes, classical heroes and heraldic knights doing knightly deeds however, Perry’s work depicts the lives of people who have historically been overlooked in the history of art: the working class.
They tell the story of Julie Cope, a fictitious ‘everywoman’ that Perry has conjured up after drawing on inspiration from the people he grew up among. Teeming with life, full of love, laughter and sorrow, they offer up a complete panoply of Julie’s existence from her changing wardrobe to her pop cultural likes (she enjoys a bit of J.R.R. Tolkien and Elton John while her daughter appears to be a Duran Duran fan). To write Julie’s biography, he looked to the English ballad and folklore tradition, narrating a life that conveys the beauty, vibrancy and contradictions of the ordinary individual.
Alongside the tapestries will be a visualisation and specially commissioned audio recording of the Ballad of Julie Cope. This 3,000-word narrative, written and read by Perry himself, elaborates on the story of Julie’s life and is translatable to audiences across the country. As the only chance to read and hear the ballad outside of the House for Essex, audiences will be able to explore ideas of regional identity and class mobility, as well as the effect of social history on the individual, through her journey.
Julie Milne, Chief Curator of the Shipley Art Gallery, said: “These tapestries have recently been added to the Craft Council’s national collection of contemporary craft and they’re the only pair in a public collection. We’re incredibly lucky to be able to show them here in Gateshead as part of their first ever national tour.”
In Perry’s words the artworks represent, “the trials, tribulations, celebrations and mistakes of an average life”, but they also make the claim that no life is an “average” life, and, indeed, we are all heroes in our own story and deserve to be celebrated just as much as the most heralded knight.
Julie Cope’s Grand Tour: the story of a life by Grayson Perry, Saturday 5 May-Saturday 28 July, The Shipley Art Gallery, Prince Consort Road, Gateshead. Free entry. shipleyartgallery.org.uk