Highlights from Grayson Perry | Smash Hits

Enter Gallery went on tour to Scotland to check out the new exhibition by one of the UKs most beloved and revered contemporary artists, (and recently-appointed Knight of the British Order) Sir Grayson Perry


National Treasure

Grayson Perry | Smash Hits is the first major retrospective of Perry’s work to be held in the UK. Visitors enjoy incredible pieces spanning his career, from his art school sketch books and his very first plate, to the intricate prints and floor-to-ceiling tapestries of recent years.


Via audio tour and descriptions beside the art, Perry explains his art with his signature wit, offering personal anecdotes from his career at the time of creation, and the thinking that went into each of his pieces.

What seems to grant Perry the ‘national treasure’ status he enjoys is his accessible, and often very funny, social commentary on complex issues like class, masculinity, sexuality, religion and politics. Speaking of the role of humour in his oeuvre, Perry says:


“There's a thing in culture where they think the opposite of seriousness is humour. It's not. The opposite of seriousness is triviality. Comedy is very rarely trivial. It's a profound and important part of being human.”

'The Transvestite Potter’

One of the highlights of the exhibition is the opportunity to see the many ceramic creations that, in the early days of his career, granted Perry the moniker, ‘The Transvestite Potter’. These pots are particularly special as they represent where it all started for Perry…



We learn that even though Perry attended art school in Portsmouth, it wasn’t until after his studies that he found the medium that would go on to win him the 2003 Turner Prize. Smash Hits marks 40 years since Perry first got his hands on some clay, and the trajectory of his life changed forever. In the show catalogue, he recalls:


“In autumn of 1983 my then girlfriend’s sister invited me to go with her to a pottery evening class. This was as uncool as you could get, so of course I agreed. Kinky Sex was the first plate I made. Looking back over 40 years of this piece, I can see the basic ingredients of my art career were already in play. Tradition, mischief and learning on the job.”



Radical Pots

Back in the 80s, pottery was considered a middle class and largely-feminine medium, so Perry’s experimentation was considered rather radical. According to Perry, this is exactly what drew him to the art form.



Via his ‘raw, angry and amateurish’ pots and plates, which were often sexually explicit (Kinky Sex, for example, featured a man ejaculating money), Perry offended both traditional pottery lovers, and contemporary art lovers who didn’t believe ceramics to be a respectable medium.


The exhibition features numerous ceramic pieces that showcase Perry’s wry interpretation of his chosen themes, such as the misconceptions of the art world explored in The Grayson Perry Trophy Awarded to A Person With Good Taste. Perry explains:

“Good taste is not about standing out, it’s about fitting in. Of course, the art world would like to think it was all about standing out. But the art world, like any culture, can be unaware of the pervasive influences that bind the group. Outrageous gestures rapidly become clichés. The art world would like to think it is the most tolerant and unshockable club but it is shot through with class prejudice. That’s partly why I was drawn to making vases. They are viewed as polite, humble and domestic – not qualities celebrated at the cutting edge.”



Another highlight is We Are What We Buy, in which Perry explores the craziness of the early 2000s when Charles Saatchi was buying up work from a group of up-and-coming artists, who became known as the Young British Artists. Perry explains the piece:  


“I made this pot in 2000. It’s about the art world at that time, and the collector Charles Saatchi and the mania for collecting the very latest Young British Artists. Saatchi bought a lot of my pots that year, so I was also part of this trend. He owned about a year’s worth of my production. The people on the pot are all at an art opening and they’re accompanied by texts saying where they buy their clothes, what cars they drive, and where they live.”


Childhood Influences

Another thing that has warmed the nation to Perry and his art is his honest revelations about his troubled childhood, and how those days have shaped his life and his art.

Featured in the exhibition are a number of works featuring Perry’s childhood teddy bear, Alan Measles, a character that he describes as his ‘personal metaphor for God, masculinity, care and security.’


Alan came into Perry’s life when he was three and was struck down with a case of…you guessed it… the measles. After his Dad left when Perry was just five, and his stepfather moved in and soon became an intimidating presence, Perry’s solution was to retreat into his bedroom, ‘where his toys, transformed into a rebel army and led by his favourite teddy bear, Alan Measles, fed his imagination.’


Perry underwent six years of psychotherapy from 1998 to 2004, and during this time Alan started to feature prominently in his work. The teddy bear is found around the exhibition in pieces like, Sponsored by You, but one piece stands out from the rest – Kenilworth AM1 – a custom-built motorcycle decorated with images of Measles. Speaking of Alan and his significance, Perry reveals: 


“When I was a child, I had a rich fantasy world where I worked for my teddy bear Alan Measles as a bodyguard and also as a designer. The company that made things for him was called Kenilworth. In reality, I made him cars and planes and guns out of Lego or Meccano. This motorcycle is the first ‘real’ product from that imaginary factory. It is a mobile shrine for the Teddy Bear God.

For a television programme, I rode it in my special bodyguard’s outfit carrying Alan on a Progress Around Germany. I chose Germany because as a child, they were the enemy, but in truth they were just an unconscious metaphor for my stepfather. The bike reflects my personal growth. Alan is depicted on the front mudguard as a warrior, in the shrine on the rear, he is a guru. I wasn’t ready to lend the real Alan Measles to this exhibition. He is far too precious. You are seeing a stunt Alan.”



Meet Claire

Growing up in the presence of an aggressive man and constantly in fear of being discovered wearing women’s clothes, Perry explains that he developed an interest in gender roles and the social factors that shape them. This experience inspired his career-long exploration of traditional ideals, and how masculinity can be expressed in many different forms. Speaking of his history of cross-dressing. Perry reveals:


“I began dressing in women’s clothes at the age of 12. From the age of 15, I was walking around the village in Essex where we lived, dressed in my mother’s clothes. I started using the name Claire when I went to transvestite clubs in my early twenties – you had to have a pseudonym”


The show features a number of pieces exploring this theme, most notably, Claire’s Coming Out Dress, of which Perry reveals:


"In 2000, I had a solo exhibition in central London. I had been in therapy for a couple of years by then. I staged my ‘coming out’ in this ruched silver outfit modelled on girls’ party dresses. This was an important moment for me. I had a kind of epiphany when I realised that being a transvestite wasn’t about pretending to be a woman. It was about me putting on the clothes that gave me the feelings that I wanted.”



Another highlight is Vote For Me (pictured below), which features Perry dressed as a politician. Speaking of the piece, which was created to coincide with the exhibition, he reveals: 

"My favoured title for this exhibition was National Treasure but I was told I could not use it because of the possibility of a Scottish independence referendum and the word 'National' would be too politically charged.

I completed this image in 2022, long before the problems that engulfed Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party and now it feels very prescient. A self-portrait in homage to another well-turned-out female politician. I sit in my very nice modern home surrounded by the symbols of identity, success, culture and mortality." 



Vote For Me is available at Enter Gallery now as a woodcut print or an etching


Class Act

Growing up on a council estate and living in squats, it was only when Perry married his wife, Philippa, and his popularity grew as an artist, that he found himself making the migration from one class to another.


Perry reveals that it was this upward mobility that heightened his awareness of his own background and generated his interest in how class identity shapes us all, and helps us to define our tastes and values.

This interest is displayed across the exhibition, but most notably in The Vanity of Small Differences – a series of six imposing tapestries exploring the different classes in the UK. Perry reveals that this series was named after a quote from Sigmund Freud, “We hate no-one quite as much as those who are nearly the same as us.”


Dream Weaver

One of our highlights of the exhibition was getting to see Perry’s incredible floor-to-ceiling tapestries, with the intricate detail all the more impressive when seen up close.



The exhibition showcases Perry’s first foray into tapestry, Vote Alan Measles for God – which came about when Perry was serendipitously invited to create a tapestry for a group show in 2007.

After catching the bug, Perry has gone on to create some of the defining works of his career, from the 15m long Walthamstow Tapestry to The Life of Julie Cope series (pictured above) – which alongside four large tapestries, also included woodcut prints, ceramics, tiles, and ‘A House for Essex’ – a property on the River Stour designed by Perry.


Looking at this impressive body of work, it seems there’s nothing that Perry can’t turn his artistic eye to. From thought-provoking TV shows that spark masterpieces, to ceramics deriding the vapid curation of our lives on social media. Perry’s unique voice exposes truths about humanity, encourages connection, and reminds us that we’re not so different after all.  


Grayson Perry | Smash Hits is on at the National (Royal Scottish Academy) until November 12th 2023.