Big interview: Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry.
Grayson Perry.
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These days Grayson Perry only dresses as his alter-ego Claire on special occasions. Today the blonde wig is on and the blue eye shadow matches his dress, which is set off with a neat yellow handbag. The outfit has been chosen with care, for this is a special occasion. Perry, who is best-known as the transvestite potter who won the Turner Prize, has been invited by Hull University to give a guest lecture on one of his inspirations, which will mark the official opening of a new exhibition to the poet and former university librarian Philip Larkin.

These days Grayson Perry only dresses as his alter-ego Claire on special occasions. Today the blonde wig is on and the blue eye shadow matches his dress, which is set off with a neat yellow handbag. The outfit has been chosen with care, for this is a special occasion. Perry, who is best-known as the transvestite potter who won the Turner Prize, has been invited by Hull University to give a guest lecture on one of his inspirations, which will mark the official opening of a new exhibition to the poet and former university librarian Philip Larkin.

“I would never describe myself as an expert on Larkin, I am more what you would call an enthusiast,” he says, settling into a chair in Larkin’s old office which is all muted shades of grey and beige and looks even drabber with Perry in it. “Years back I was given a book of poetry by WH Auden which I enjoyed and that led me to Larkin. It’s funny really because while he is this great mythic figure in British art and literature, when you see his books side by side they look tiny. Four slim volumes, paper tombs I like to call them.”

Perry has previously said that he keeps Larkin’s Collected Works by his bedside and dips into it with increasingly regularity as he grows older and more bitter. Like much of what he says, it is said with a wry smile, but his love of Larkin’s work – The Whitsun Weddings and Toads are among his favourites – is genuine.

“What I like about Larkin is that he is very amusing and there is a real clarity of emotion. There’s also a certain sensibility which is very English. It’s about class, it’s about taste and it’s about the politics of the era. He’s emotionally constipated and the words he writes are often bittersweet which really appeals to me.

“I can’t really explain why, but Larkin is someone who has had brief walk on parts in my work over the last 15 or 20 years. It’s not something I do consciously, but he keeps popping up.”

Perry came on the radar of the Philip Larkin Society, who invited him to Hull and gave him a guided tour of the city, when one of its members happened to spot a small figure of the poet on his Map of Days plates at the National Portrait Gallery.

At the time the society was in the middle of planning the New Eyes Each Year exhibition as part of the year-long UK City of Culture events and reckoned that Perry would be the perfect guest of honour for the opening. When we meet the artist has just had a quick look around the recreation of the university library where Larkin worked for 30 years.

As well as his books, the shelves also contain various personal possessions and letters and it doesn’t shy away from the controversy which followed the poet throughout his life.

“Everyone has a dark side and I think it is far better to embrace it than pretend it doesn’t exist,” says Perry, breezily dismissing those who have described him variously as a misogynist, a racist and just downright miserable.

“It’s a lovely exhibition. I think it’s so nice to be able to see the material things which belonged and meant something to them.”

While Perry is known for his ceramic works he has dabbled in poetry and a few years ago completed a 3,000-word epic while he was working on House for Essex with Living Architecture.

The organisation was set up to change people’s perceptions of modern architecture through commissioning world-class architects to build unusual houses which are then rented out by the public for holidays.

It was the brainchild of philosopher Alain de Botton and Perry’s contribution is Essex’s answer to the Taj Mahal. Standing on the River Stour and packed with his artwork it tells the fictional story of a local woman called Julie, whose husband had the house built as a shrine on her death and tells her story through tapestries inside.

“When I was doing the House for Essex I decided that the building had to have a narrative. I wasn’t sure what that would be, but I was reading one of Larkin’s books at the time and I thought, ‘That’s it, I’m going to write a poem of Julie’s life’.

“So that’s what I did. It was a long, biographical poem, from birth to death and while I am not sure it will ever see the light of day, by the final full stop I thought, ‘Well at least I’ve had a go’.”

Perry’s tour of Hull was a bit of a whistlestop one and while he liked what he saw he is not necessarily a natural supporter of initiatives like UK City of Culture, which was launched on the back of Liverpool’s success as European City of Culture in 2008.

“I am always slightly suspicious of these events which claim to be able transform people’s lives through the power of art,” he says. “But when it’s done well, they can be brilliant. I live in Islington which has now famously been gentrified and there are some people there who put it all down to the opening of Robert Carrier’s restaurant in 1963.

“Honestly, it’s now like Las Ramblas in Barcelona. I’ve seen first hand how once a place gets a bit of momentum then it can be transformed beyond all recognition.”

Perry’s own transformation from unknown artist to household name came with that Turner Prize win in 2003 and he is clearly a man comfortable in the spotlight.

“When I decided to go to art college it was a lightbulb moment, but I never thought it would end up as a career. It was my art teacher at school Mr Barnett who really encouraged me. Ceramics came about because I happened to go to evening classes and I liked the fact that there is a certain modesty to it. It’s regarded as the suburban next door neighbour of proper art and that appealed to me.

“Of course winning the Turner Prize changed everything. It’s really a PR exercise with an exhibition attached, but it catapulted me into the spotlight and I have fully embraced the attention. That kind of fame is not for everyone, but I was happy to milk it.”

In the 80s, Perry lived life far from the mainstream. For a while he was a member of the Neo Naturists, which was set up to revive the “true sixties spirit and involved living more or less naked and occasionally turning up to a gallery to stage a performance” and he also shared a house with milliner Stephen Jones and pop musician Boy George. So the story goes, the three of them would compete to see who could wear the most outrageous outfits to the infamous Blitz nightclub.

Hard to imagine that Perry being taken to tea by the Larkin Society.

“Oh god I have been a fully paid up member of the establishment for years. I am not one of those punk fans who grow up but like to pretend they are rebellious outsiders, although I still like an adventure, it’s why I like making documentaries.

“If I hadn’t done the television work. I would never have gone to a cage fight or been on a unionist march. It has taken me to all sorts of places. I even had a spray tan and went out with a group of Sunderland girls - and survived. Not many men can say that.”

Larkin: New Eyes Each Year, Brynmor Jones Library, Hull University, to October 1. hull2017.co.uk