Art Review: The Vanity of Small Differences by Grayson Perry in Salisbury Cathedral

“THE Vanity of Small Differences” is an exhibition of six huge tapestries by Grayson Perry, each inspired by William Hogarth The progress of the rakess, charts a stage in the journey of social mobility undertaken by the young Tim Rakewell (an ironic reference to Tom Rakewell, the protagonist of Hogarth). The tapestries include many of the characters, incidents and objects that Perry encountered while traveling through Sunderland, Tunbridge Wells and the Cotswolds while filming. All in the best possible taste with Grayson Perry, a series on social class for Channel 4.

References to classical art and religious painting also illuminate the work and reflection on this aspect of tapestries was a key element in the conversations that led to this exhibition, the first presentation of these works in an ecclesiastical setting. The Dean of Salisbury, the Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, says his concern, knowing that several panels are titled after famous works of sacred art, was to be sure that Perry’s treatment of sacred themes was an understanding and a respectful and expanded appreciation.

Dean sees Perry as “a magpie-like figure – taking ideas and images from a range of sources – using archetypes without simply distinguishing medieval sacred art”. Nevertheless, the fact that works of sacred art inspired these tapestries, and that the tapestry itself was an art form with which the early custodians of the cathedral would have been familiar, and was used to give life to religious stories and depict historical events, means that when the tapestries are displayed in this space, these connections and references are activated and animated in ways that would not otherwise occur. Consequently, showing Perry’s tapestries here turns out to be an inspired decision.

The Dean notes that the monumental scale of the tapestries works well in a building of this size. Not only is their scale perfectly correct, but their colors also blend well with the double windows above, while the fairly understated masonry sets off the extraordinary pops of color in each tapestry. The colors seem to “jump off the wall towards us”, and some nice parallels have been created. One of them, identified by Dean, is that one of the cage fighters worshiping Tim and his mother in the first tapestry (The Worship of the Cage Fighters) has an image on its back of the Archangel Michael casting Satan out of heaven. The same scene also appears in the window just above. As the Dean says, “You couldn’t make it up.”

More than that, through his story, “Perry asks us to see ourselves as others may see us, and he also asks us to recognize how we judge others.” This, the Dean believes, “is worth exploring in a cathedral context” because “questioning and self-reflection are vital disciplines in the life of faith, just as welcoming and honoring people from all walks of life is part of our vocation, as a place of prayer and worship and as a place visited by thousands of people.

One of the purposes of liturgy and worship is to look at ourselves in the light of the Gospel, making self-reflection an essential spiritual discipline. A point the Dean likes to make to visitors is that, although these tapestries were made ten years ago, they are, after Brexit, the pandemic, the cost of living crisis and the war in Ukraine, “ more relevant than ever before” in their exploration of how we are united or divided as a nation.

Finnbarr WebsterAdoration of the Cage Fighters (left) and The Agony in the Car Park, hung below the cathedral windows

Perry’s narrative reverses the journey taken in Hogarth’s The progress of the rake, but the story still ends in tragedy as he gets into a car accident and, despite his money, dies in the gutter. The Dean notes that “personal wealth at any cost does not end well.” He points to the penultimate panel (The upper class at Bay), in which Rakewell has purchased the landed nobility, but is surrounded by protesters demanding that he pay his taxes. There it is clear that he has “forgotten where he comes from and his wider societal obligations”. The question this raises is what is the basis of social mobility? Is it just acquiring money? And what responsibilities do we have as members of the same human community? The last panel (#Lamentation) suggests that Tim’s last word is ‘Mother” so, at the end, ‘he is reminded of the non-negotiability of family and where you come from’.

Perry has an idiosyncratic approach to religion, although it’s a surprisingly frequent theme in his work. He spoke, for example, of psychoanalysis and art as making sense, and of religion as a coming together of people. The Dean sees this latter understanding as part of this exhibition, and the Cathedral’s exhibition program more broadly.

“Cathedrals are places of gathering and bring people together.” Thus, “part of the purpose of exhibitions is to bring people together; people who otherwise could not come to a cathedral. His hope is that these people will come together for this exhibition but, by gathering in a cathedral, they will not only look at the tapestries, but also gain a sense of a place where the worship of God is paramount. In other words, “those who meet the job here will have to try very hard if they don’t want to have a different meet as well.”

‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ is at Salisbury Cathedral until September 25. More information here