Potty Not Potty

By Jo Phillips

Is creativity a dirty word? Is being cool naff as f*ck? Are stripped back brick walls naff? Well according to Grayson Perry artist and ceramic king they are (well for him anyway). So he tells a group of journalists at the press preview of his new show at the Holburne Museum in Bath Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years.

And that is very much the point. This truly unique exhibition is exactly what it says on the tin: The raw visceral work of an artist starting his journey as a discovery of his métier and as the man finding who he is (via his work). Warts and all, his thoughts his feelings his neurosis his fetishism his beliefs and his dysfunction.

Childhood Trauma Manifesting Itself in Later Life 1992 . Glazed ceramic
34 x 33 cm . Collection of Mark D.D. Wilson. © Grayson Perry Images are courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice; Photography by Luke Unsworth

He was also first exploring he wants to dress in women’s clothes at a time when transvestism was not generally talked about and so the birth of Claire (his alter ego) is very present. He has several pieces in the exhibition that celebrate the style of women he aspired to dress like from princess Diana to BBC newsreaders.


This amazing collection of work some from 1983 when he first took hold of clay at evening classes and began the journey to huge recognition as well as a Turner prize: the first ceramicist to do so.

He also commentated at the event ‘that going to pottery classes was a cheap option because at the end of the classes your work was weighed with the grand cost of 20 pence per pound fo clay’. At this level of cost, it is no wonder that a young post-graduate artist living in north London squats would not take advantage of a cheap way to explore his own artistry, having already dabbled in film making and performance art not very successfully.

And what makes this exhibition really stand out is that the viewer gets to go on Grayson’s self-exploration with him. From the earliest of plates via sketchbooks and lots and lots of vases, pots and even small status.

Claire as a soldier 1987 Glazed ceramic Approx. 36 x 27 cm
Mo Tomaney © Grayson Perry Images are courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice; Photo by Thierry Bal

And because it’s the pre-therapy years the pieces are literally his every thought from sex (lots of that) to equality, paganism, class and that British obsession with taste. Here in this small exhibition is a timeline of his every neurosis of his, explored via ceramics fascinating and brave, because how many artists could be this brave to expose themselves in this way.

Interestingly Perry did not keep proper records of his early works, selling them to friend and friends of friends for £50 here £80 or as he put it ‘Pocket money prices’ there and even the small galleries he worked with didn’t keep records so in order to be able to put this exhibition together the gallery had to do a ‘call-out’ to try and get pieces from the general public: many of the 70 items on display arrived via this following from a hugely successful appeal to the public in 2018.

Curator Catrin Jones explained  ‘When we proposed the exhibition, Grayson responded really positively because, he said, “no one knows where those works are”. So, we asked the public and were absolutely overwhelmed by the response.

Once Perry saw the items together it was he who said ‘oh it’s like the pre-therapy years’ hence this was adopted for the title of the show

Self Portrait Cracked and Warped c. 1985 Glazed ceramic 35.6 x 25.4 cm Jane Colling © Grayson Perry Images are courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice; Photography Todd-White Art Photography

It all begins in 1982 when Perry was first working as an artist and meanders through to the mid-90s when he started to really become established in the mainstream London art scene. One of the most striking elements is the words, images, texts, and motifs which are part of the pieces on show, all seen in much later work were present from the very beginning.

Here in these early years the anger, pain, frustration, irony, and humor feel so much rawer and explosive. There is nothing held back here to be vetted it is a subconscious stream of honest emotion that had not yet to be explored with professional help.

There is also clearly the reference of post-punk (new romantic) mix with historical art and his fascination with Neo Naturists, ( performance-based live art practice started during the early 1980s in London) mixed with the vibrant London squat and club scene.

During the walkthrough of this show, Grayson mentions a time whilst out when someone he knew (who was a bit too trendy for his liking) asked him what he was up to and when he replied ‘making pottery‘ he got in return was ‘Pottery! Pottery! …oh Pottery.’..and it was at this point Grayson himself realised he had crossed ‘a miasmic curtain which beyond was a golden history of ceramics to access, without being part of it ‘ but that he was an artist able to use this history.

This is the first time this collection of works has ever been shown together making this a must-see. He says of the show, “This show has been such a joy to put together, I am really looking forward to seeing these early works again many of which I have not seen since the eighties. It is as near as I will ever get to meeting myself as a young man, an angrier, priapic me with huge energy but a much smaller wardrobe.” The show covers the period from when Perry left art college in 1982 until his first major gallery exhibition with Anthony d’Offay in 1994.

Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years, is a book to go with the exhibition as well as a great option for those not able to travel to sit it. Edited by Catrin Jones and Chris Stephens, with essays by Grayson Perry, Andrew Wilson and Catrin Jones.

Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years is at The Holburne Museum, Bath, from 24 January – 25 May 2020. The exhibition will tour to York City Art Gallery (12 June to 20 September 2020) and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich (18 October 2019 to 31 January 2021). 

The book by Thames and Hudson accompanying Perry’s traveling exhibition features full-colour illustrations of his seminal ceramic works from this period. As well as an essay from the artist and critical essays from experts on Perry’s work. Book cover image Grayson Perry, 1988 © Matthew Lewis

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