Collecting guide: Grayson Perry’s prints and tapestries
Perry is best known for his ceramics, but he also explores ‘the commonplace dramas of modern British life’ through etchings, woodcuts and tapestries. Seven of the artist’s prints are offered across sales at Christie’s in London this month
Grayson Perry with his etching The American Dream, 2020, at Victoria Miro gallery in London. Photo: Neil Hall / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock. Artwork: © Grayson Perry and Paragon | Contemporary Editions Ltd
In 2003, British artist Grayson Perry became the first ceramicist to win the Turner Prize. Collecting his £20,000 cheque, Perry — dressed as his alter ego, Claire, in a bright-purple dress — told the awards ceremony’s audience, ‘It’s about time a transvestite potter won.’
Perry, who was born in Chelmsford in Essex in 1960, began experimenting with clay in the early 1980s, and his pots are his earliest, best-known and most expensive works. His equally thought-provoking prints and multiples, however, also form an important part of his practice.
‘The monumental scale of many of Perry’s editions allows him to pack them with detail, narrative and iconography,’ says James Baskerville, senior specialist in Prints and Multiples at Christie’s in London. ‘You can spend hours deciphering his observations on family, sex, politics, class, beauty, money, and the absurd side of everyday life.’
Grayson Perry (b. 1960), The American Dream (Pink and Mauve), 2021. Etching in colours from six plates. Plate: 1055 x 2370 mm. One of two artist’s proofs aside from the edition of seven in this colourway, in the artist’s frame. Estimate: £30,000-50,000. Offered in Contemporary Edition, 12-28 September 2023 at Christie’s Online
In 2003, after an introduction made by the painter Peter Doig, Perry signed with Victoria Miro gallery. Miro introduced the artist to Charles Booth-Clibborn, the founder of the London-based fine art print publishers Paragon Press, who in turn asked Hugh Stoneman, a master printer in Cornwall, to provide Perry with sheets of acetate film in order to prepare an etching. Drawing onto them directly with ink, Perry created Map of an Englishman (2004).
Grayson Perry (b. 1960), Map of an Englishman, 2004. Etching. Image: 1115 x 1495 mm. ‘Unique trial proof’, aside from the edition of 50 (plus 10 artist’s proofs), in artist’s frame. Sold for £41,300 on 3 April 2008 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Grayson Perry and Paragon | Contemporary Editions Ltd
‘Starting in the top left corner and finishing in the bottom right, Perry largely made the image up as he went along, wiping away errors with a damp cloth,’ explains Baskerville. ‘Instead of place names, the map is populated with themes, feelings and words that explore the artist’s own psyche.’
The process took about three weeks. Stoneman then transferred the four finished acetate sheets onto four copper printing plates. The resulting map was produced in an edition of 50. Perry’s subsequent map etchings, Print for a Politician (2005), Map of Nowhere (2008) and A Map of Days (2013), were made using the same method.
Grayson Perry (b. 1960), The Map of Nowhere (Blue), 2008. Etching in blue printed from five plates. Plate: 1521 x 1115 mm (overall). One of four artist’s proofs aside from the edition of 15 in this colourway. Estimate: £20,000-30,000. Offered in Contemporary Edition, 12-28 September 2023 at Christie’s Online
‘The print has a stormy quality to it,’ Perry said of Map of Nowhere. ‘I don’t like the plate being wiped too clean in the printing process; I like it to have a sort of antique, dirty look. The basic formal design came from a German mappa mundi called the Ebstorf Map, which was destroyed in the Second World War. It showed Jesus as the body of the world. My daughter often accuses me of setting myself up as God, so I made the lakes and rivers into my body.’
‘Map of Nowhere was printed from five plates onto a single sheet in an edition of 68 in black, together with three special colour variants in red, blue and purple,’ says Baskerville. ‘The variants were each published in an edition of just 15, making them highly collectible.’
Grayson Perry (b. 1960), Animal Spirit (Pink), 2012. Etching in colours. Plate: 600 x 748 mm. One of six artist’s proofs aside from the edition of 35 in this colourway. Estimate: £6,000-8,000. Offered in Contemporary Edition, 12-28 September 2023 at Christie’s Online
In 2016, Perry made the print Animal Spirit, a reflection on the 2008 financial crash, by drawing directly onto a computer rather than acetate. The resulting image was then engraved onto copper plates and wooden blocks.
Since then, all of Perry’s prints have been made digitally, with the benefit that each drawing can be used to create different versions of the same work. For example, Animal Spirit, Reclining Artist (2017) and Selfie with Political Causes (2018) have been produced both as etchings and as more monumental woodcut prints.
Grayson Perry (b. 1960), Selfie with Political Causes, 2018. Etching in colours. Plate 668 x 1,000 mm. One of 10 artist’s proofs aside from the edition of 68. Estimate: £7,000-10,000. Offered in Contemporary Edition, 12-28 September 2023 at Christie’s Online
‘I made [Selfie with Political Causes] for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition that I curated in 2018,’ Perry has said. ‘One of the arcane rules of the RA’s constitution is that there have to be a certain number of painters, sculptors, architects and printmakers among the Academicians at any one time. Somewhat bizarrely, I was elected as a printmaker — so I thought I’d better make a print!’
In 2015, Perry made his first woodcut, Six Snapshots of Julie. The six images represent the life of Julie Cope, a fictitious character who, like Perry, was born and raised in Essex before moving to London. Each image represents a different decade of her journey, from young rock’n’roll fan to ageing, worldly traveller.
Grayson Perry (b. 1960), Plate 2 from: Six Snapshots of Julie (colour), 2015. Woodcut in colours. Block: 698 x 465 mm. One of 10 artist’s proofs aside from the edition of 68. Estimate: £2,000-3,000. Offered in Contemporary Edition, 12-28 September 2023 at Christie’s Online
Grayson Perry (b. 1960), Plate 6 from: Six Snapshots of Julie (colour), 2015. Woodcut in colours. Block: 698 x 465 mm. One of 10 artist’s proofs aside from the edition of 68. Estimate: £2,000-3,000. Offered in Contemporary Edition, 12-28 September 2023 at Christie’s Online
‘The work was drawn directly onto a digital screen, then routed by a computer onto separate wooden sheets, using one block for each colour,’ Baskerville explains.
‘I like the slight misregistering you get with a woodcut, and the chunky black line that is very nice to work with. I love the way the ink gets really physical and thick on these huge prints,’ Perry has said. A number of woodcuts are included in his 2023 retrospective Smash Hits at the Royal Scottish Academy (until 12 November 2023). One of the best-known, Sponsored by You (2019), depicts the artist’s childhood teddy bear, Alan Measles, as a capitalist playboy.
‘Perry had been experimenting with cloth since the late 1990s, using a digital sewing machine to embroider scenes of butterflies, aeroplanes, death and torture onto dresses to wear as Claire,’ says Baskerville. ‘Then, in 2007, he created his first tapestry.’
Made by hand using traditional needlepoint, Vote Alan Measles for God depicts the artist’s teddy bear surrounded by a terrorist’s set of tools. The 2.5-metre-high image, produced in an edition of five (plus three artist’s proofs), was inspired by Perry’s personal collection of Afghan war rugs.
The following year, Perry began designing his epic, five-metre-wide work The Walthamstow Tapestry. Named after the north London neighbourhood that was home to his studio, the piece examines consumerism through the lens of William Shakespeare’s famous ‘All the world’s a stage’ monologue in As You Like It, which expounds upon the ‘Seven Ages of Man’.
‘Like most of Perry’s subsequent tapestries, the image started as a black-and-white line drawing — in this case, completed across seven sheets of A1 over the course of three months,’ says Baskerville. ‘After the image was digitally scanned, colours were added using Photoshop. The files were then scaled and joined by Factum Arte, a specialist digital studio in Madrid.
‘The tapestry was woven on a machine loom at Flanders Tapestries in Wielsbeke, Belgium, using Jacquard weaving technology. Colour-matching was completed first in Madrid, then later with Perry in London, using charts containing hundreds of small colour patches.’
Grayson Perry (b. 1960), The Adoration of the Cage Fighters (from The Vanity of Small Differences), 2012. Wool, cotton, acrylic, polyester and silk tapestry. 78¾ x 162⅝ in (200 x 413 cm). This work is number three from an edition of six plus two artist’s proofs. Estimate on request. Offered by Christie’s Private Sales
Perry has gone on to create more than 20 additional tapestries. One of the best-known is his set of six huge tapestries, The Vanity of Small Differences (2012). Inspired by William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, Perry’s work shows a young man’s journey from working-class Sunderland to becoming lord of a country manor. The Vanity of Small Differences was the first tapestry Perry created using a digital pen to translate his line drawings into computer files, a technique that he has used for every tapestry since.
Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
‘Tapestry is the art form of grand houses,’ Perry has said. ‘They depicted classical myths, historical and religious scenes or epic events such as Hannibal crossing the Alps. I enjoy the idea of using this costly and ancient medium to show the commonplace dramas of modern British life.’
Subsequent tapestry and embroidery projects have included Britain Is Best (2014), Sacred Tribal Artefact (2023) and Morris, Gainsborough, Turner, Riley (2021), a digital collage of William Morris & Co.’s Seaweed wallpaper (1901), Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews (circa 1750), J.M.W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire (1839) and Bridget Riley’s High Sky (1991). Each work, says Perry, represents a formative thread in British culture. Originally designed specifically for the artist’s home, one of the 10 editions, says Baskerville, now hangs in the British Embassy in Washington, D.C.