Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences at Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool takes visitors on an expedition into the British class structure and its effect on taste and cultural identity. The exhibition consists of six tapestries that contemporise William Hogarth’s painting series A Rakes Progress (1732–34), which follows the narrative of Tim Rakewell. Perry’s reinvention of the tale’s original protagonist, Tom Rakewell, narrates Tim’s rise from his working class roots into the middle and upper classes, before ending with his tragic death as a product of hyper-capitalist consumption. The exhibition includes plenty of satirical references to class and consumer culture, including; cans of Red Bull, Jamie Oliver and tweed jackets.
The tapestries are located within the Grundy’s long gallery space and this curation strengthens the narrative of the series, with the high imposing ceilings being ideal for displaying such large works. The exhibition starts with The Adoration of the Cage Fighters (2012); a piece that references Andrea Mantegna’s Adoration of the Shepherds (1450-54) and features baby Tim in his mother’s arms as he reaches for her cell phone. Two cage fighters kneel below her, bringing offerings of a football shirt and miners’ lamp, which represent symbols of modern and traditional working-class masculinity. The next two works in the series document Tim’s social mobility, rising from working-class to middle-class, leading you into the second room in the exhibition, where Tim starts a new chapter of his, satirised in the Annunciation of the Virgin Deal (2012). Tim, now a successful businessman, is depicted in his kitchen surrounded by objects that satirise his newly found status; organic vegetables sit on the kitchen table alongside a Kath Kidson bag and recycling containers, all of which hint at the domestic bliss of his new found idealistic lifestyle.
The fifth piece moves on to Tim’s retired life as an upper-class gentleman. The tapestry features a felled stag in tweed with an aristocrat’s head, portraying the established upper-class gentry as a dying breed. As ‘new money’ takes-over, the aristocrats struggle to maintain their money draining estates, whilst trying to preserve the air of upper-class exclusivity that Tim will never be truly indoctrinated into. The exhibition culminates with #Lamentation (2012), depicting Tim’s death after fatally crashing his Ferrari, which is surrounded by onlookers capturing the event on their phones. This piece is a lamentation to consumer culture of 21st century life in the West, highlighting how, in death, small differences of lifestyle or class become irrelevant.
Rather than a harsh critique of class, the narrative and humour of the exhibition allows visitor identify with Tim. As we naively think of ourselves as classless society, the Vanity of Small Differences questions this by using the small items of everyday life that we unconsciously recognise and associate with different social groups, such as a tweed jacket, to highlight prevailing structures and attitudes. It is the exploration of these small everyday things that we identify with that makes the tapestries a success, as it creates an emotive personal response as we recognise an aspect of self within them.
Grayson Perry: The vanity of Small Differences runs until 15 December at Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool.
Claire Walker is a writer based in Wigan.
Image: Grayson Perry, Expulsion from No. 8 Eden Close, 2012 Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre London and British Council © the artist. Gift of the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery with the support of Channel 4 Television, the Art Fund and Sfumato Foundation with additional support from AlixPartners