Grayson Perry's tapestries from TV documentary on display at Wentworth Woodhouse
Back in 2012, Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry travelled the country to investigate the British class system for a television documentary – literally weaving images of the characters he met along the way into a collection of tapestries.
From that Channel 4 show – which was called All in the Best Possible Taste with Grayson Perry – came a display that charts the progress of a character called Tim Rakewell through the British class system and its influence on our aesthetic tastes.
Called The Vanity of Small Differences and inspired by William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress, the six large tapestries that tell the story of Rakewell’s rise from humble roots in Sunderland to a being a tech millionaire living in the Cotswolds are now on display at Wentworth Woodhouse in South Yorkshire.
The artwork is influenced by many classic paintings and is filled with religious references; a shipyard crane in Sunderland stands in for the crucifix to give just one example.
But it also has many touches of Perry’s famous humour – with one tapestry depicting Jamie Oliver as the ‘God of social mobility’.
Appropriately given the temporary new home of the exhibition, the tapestries – which are on loan from the Arts Council Collection – also touch on the challenges of maintaining huge estates. In a video essay to accompany the exhibition, Perry explains that The Upper Class at Bay or Endangered Species Brought Down depicts an “old aristocratic stag with its tattered tweed hide being hunted down by the dogs of tax, social change, upkeep and fuel bills”.
While things are far from that bleak for Wentworth Woodhouse, like any major estate it is moving with the times to ensure its survival and the site is in the midst of a major regeneration programme.
Securing this exhibition with the help of Flux Rotherham, an Arts Council England Creative People and Places programme, is part of wider efforts to increase the appeal of Wentworth Woodhouse to visitors.
Jen Booth, Visitor Operations Manager at Wentworth Woodhouse, says she hopes the exhibition will attract around 5,000 visitors to the Grade I listed country house between its opening on June 28 and the end of the display on September 3.
Booth says the show is already attracting new and repeat visitors to the house, which is looked after by the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust.
"Obviously they are contemporary pieces which is obviously at juxtaposition with the rooms. We are an empty house and we don’t have a collection.
"We’re going through a phase of research and development with our visitor programming and we want to understand how to explore different uses with those rooms.
"These tapestries are extremely accessible and so relatable.
"They contain objects and elements of British life that literally anyone can identify with. They are a commentary on British society.
"I love watching people go around them. At each tapestry, someone will pause over certain objects and scenes and point things out to the people they are with.
"Contemporary art is very subjective and even if it not particularly to your taste, to have something like this in an older building like Wentworth, you can’t help but look at them for a while.
"The reception has been really good and there is such a buzz around the house at the moment.
"A lot of visitors have been before but have come back specifically for the exhibition. That is really key for us because while we get a lot of repeat visitors for the gardens, we don’t get a huge repeat audience for walking around the house. This has really brought that back up for us and people coming back around the house within six months or a year of their last visit.”
"The other day I asked five visitors whether they had been to the house before and three said yes and they had come back for the exhibition and two were completely new visitors.
"We will get more data as we go along but the volunteers are absolutely buzzing with the interactions they are having with visitors.
"They are getting lots of people saying they will bring their friends. We did also have someone say they had stopped off specially on their journey further north. That is massive for us because we are just off the M1 and to get into that kind of market would be huge for us.”
She says she hopes this will be a springboard for other art exhibitions to be displayed at Wentworth Woodhouse.
"This is probably our first major exhibition that the house has ever done. It has real learning process but incredibly rewarding to see how it has been received,” she says.
"It is about reviewing where the house is going to go in the future with its programming because we are doing a lot to preserve and bring the house back to life but understanding who we are and what we want to be – this is all part of that.
"We want to be able to create a mixed programme of touring exhibitions where we colloborate with big organisations like the Arts Council but we are also going to star looking at curating our own exhibitions as well. We do have a collection of Rockingham Pottery, we also have donated archives from a local gentleman called Roy Young who has a wealth of archival material linked to the village, the house and estate.
"We want to appeal to a really wide audience throughout the year.”
To make the most of the exhibition coming to Wentworth Woodhouse, a series of creative textile workshops are running during the summer involving seven talented Yorkshire artists.
The workshops follow on from The Threads that Connect Us, Flux Rotherham’s creative project which saw 170 local people - from beginners to experienced embroiderers - stitch, quilt and applique textile artworks.
Their creations were included in Threads of Survival, a national creative textiles project to share memories of the pandemic.
Flux director Helen Jones says: “Our project proved there’s now a strong interest in learning traditional crafting skills again. Many people turned to them in the pandemic and found them therapeutic and it’s lovely to see this continuing.
“Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust shares our ethos of community, diversity and inclusion and the Grayson Perry exhibition was the perfect opportunity to come together.”
Two-hour workshops for adults of all abilities will run in the mansion’s Low Drawing Room. Places cost £12 and include access to the Grayson Perry exhibition, house, and gardens.
In addition, local groups who took part in The Threads That Connect Us project will be offered a series of free workshops linked to the exhibition.
Artists involved include Rotherham’s Amanda Daley and Karen Hall, of Doncaster. Inspired by Grayson’s ceramics and tapestries, on July 26 Daley, the granddaughter of an Orgreave miner, will be showing how to use textiles to create designs on vases to take home.
Participants will be taught how to make miniature art pieces from mixed media at Hall’s workshop on August 29.
There will be an opportunity for children to discover the tapestries in their own way and get creative with a selection of free activity sheets when they visit with House and Garden tickets.
There will also be three Bookmark Weaving Workshops for children on July 23 and 28 and August 12, priced £3.50.
Booth says: “We want to be able to show there is more the house can do and there is something for everyone. A country house can be quite austere and slightly off-putting experience and we definitely don’t want to be that. We want to bring people in.”
For more details of workshops and to book, go to https://wentworthwoodhouse.org.uk/whats-on/grayson-perry-exhibition