Grayson Perry (b. 1960)
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more PROPERTY FROM THE GRAINER COLLECTION
Grayson Perry (b. 1960)

The Guardians

Grayson Perry (b. 1960)
The Guardians
glazed earthenware and decals, in two parts
each: 35 ½ x 16 ½ x 16 ½in. (90.1 x 41.9 x 41.9cm.)
Executed in 1998
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner in 1999.
L. Hoggard, '‘Not with a bang…’: Review of the Annual Crafts Council Exhibition', in Blueprint, no. 157, 1999, pp. 51-52.
Grayson Perry: Guerilla Tactics, exh. cat., Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, 2002, p. 106 (with incorrect measurements; one pot illustrated in colour, p. 29).
London, Crafts Council Gallery, Decadence? Views from the Edge of the Century, 1999 (one pot illustrated in colour, unpaged). This exhibition later travelled to Wellbeck, Harley Gallery and Barnard Castle, The Bowes Museum.
Pittsburgh, The Andy Warhol Museum, Grayson Perry, 2006.
Charlotte, The Mint Museum of Craft + Design, Contemporary British Studio Ceramics: The Grainer Collection, 2010-2011, pp. 120 & 210 (illustrated in colour, p. 121; detail illustrated on the inside front and back covers).
New Haven, The Yale Center for British Art, Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery, 2017-2018, p. 392, no. 149 (illustrated in colour, p. 393).
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Tessa Lord
Tessa Lord

Lot Essay

Described by Grayson Perry as ‘my most literally autobiographical work’, The Guardians (1998) stands among the most important creations of his early career. Virtuosic in execution yet profoundly intimate in subject matter, this extraordinary pair of large-scale vases marks a key turning point in his personal and professional life. Seated atop their lids are the titular ‘guardians’ – a tongue-in-cheek reference to Chinese mythology – modelled after his mother and stepfather. Following the birth of his daughter six years earlier, Perry had begun to reflect upon the traumas of his own upbringing, defined by fraught familial relations and the early emergence of his female alter-ego ‘Claire’. ‘I made [The Guardians] at a time of personal psychological crisis’, he explains. ‘… I think I was very angry with [my mother and stepfather] at the time. Perhaps I saw this pair standing guard at the entrance of a dark place I needed to enter’ (G. Perry, quoted in Contemporary British Studio Ceramics: The Grainer Collection¸ exh. cat., Mint Museum of Craft and Design, Charlotte, 2010, p. 120). Across the opulent gold lustre surface of the vases, Perry weaves a chorus of transfer prints and hand-drawn imagery: a mixture of scenes from his family history, Christian iconography, chinoiserie, decorative motifs and art-historical snippets. The result is a poignant, near-operatic spectacle that demonstrates his transformation of ceramics into a vehicle for personal and cultural enquiry. Operating as a self-portrait of sorts, it ultimately came to represent something of an exorcism for Perry, who made the pivotal decision to begin psychotherapy shortly afterwards. In 1999, the work entered the prestigious ceramics collection of Diane and Marc Grainer, and has been widely exhibited throughout Europe and America.

Perry had a difficult relationship with his stepfather: a milkman who had an affair with his mother when he was just five years old. As a young child, he retreated into a lonely fantasy world presided over by his beloved teddy bear Alan Measles, whom he conceived as a military commander and surrogate father-figure. Later, he began to experiment with cross-dressing, trying on his sister’s dresses and ballet outfits in secret. His family struggled to accept the development of ‘Claire’ during his late teenage years, and after leaving home for art school he became progressively estranged from both his mother and stepfather. It was not until his late 30s – by which point he had already started his own family – that Perry began to confront his childhood in earnest. Unlike his contemporaneous piece Vase Using my Family (1998), which features a large image of Alan Measles alongside photographs of his wife and daughter, the present work looks back to the darker events that shaped his youth. Among its motifs are vignettes imagining the liaison between his mother and stepfather, the latter dressed in his milkman’s uniform before a naked woman at the door. There are references to transvestism, to Perry’s obsessive childhood fascination with aircraft and to his stepfather’s amateur wrestling pursuits. His mother carries a bag bearing her new married initials ‘J. S. D.’ (Jean Shirley Dines). A small crucifix bears the date 1965: the year that his father left the family home for good.

Such deeply personal fragments, however, are embedded within a wider network of cultural references. Like much of Perry’s early oeuvre, the pots themselves are loosely evocative of Chinese baluster vases, adorned with generic ornamental patterns and motifs. The antiquated forms of his works – described by the artist as ‘classical invisible’ – are held in tension with their subversive contemporary narratives. Elsewhere, he looks to Greek pottery, folk art and other ceramic traditions, using stereotypes from each genre as a base for confronting current social and political issues. By the time of the present work, Perry had already begun to receive critical acclaim, having come to prominence in tandem with the so-called Young British Artists (YBAs) during the early 1990s. Much like Tracey Emin’s appliquéd blankets, which similarly became vehicles for candid confession, his pots challenged the relationship between art and craft. Though made using traditional coiling methods, their complex surfaces deploy a variety of additional techniques – from glazing and embossing to incision, relief, slip trailing, stamping and photographic transfers – which frequently require several firings. Everything is created painstakingly by hand: ‘I want my fingerprint to be on the work’, he explains (G. Perry, quoted in J. Klein, Grayson Perry, London 2009, p. 229). Nowhere is this more eloquently expressed than in the present work, whose every inch is saturated with his story. Five years later, dressed proudly as Claire, he would become the first ceramicist to receive the Turner Prize.

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