Grayson Perry – The Vanity of Small Differences

[Image: Grayson Perry, The Adoration of the Cage Fighters, 2012. Photo © Stephen White]

Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre London and British Council. 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.


‘The Vanity of Small Differences’: an exhibition comprising of six tapestries created during the BAFTA-winning Channel 4 documentary series ‘All in the Best Possible Taste’ by Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry. The tapestries are a modern revision of William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, a tale of social mobility following Tim Rakewell (Perry’s counterpart to Hogarth’s Tom Rakewell) as he travels through life via six incarnations of social class.

The legendary tapestries have finally made it to Leeds – although everybody had been expecting them to be put in a central location. It sounded like an oddity when I was first told they would be at Temple Newsam house on the outskirts of Leeds. I have to admit I felt slightly cheated that I not only had to wait this long, but I then had to put aside a day to go and see them. Who’d have thought tapestries could be so demanding of time and space?

I suppose that hearing the word ‘tapestry’ equates with images of grandeur, and the best place to find this around Leeds is Temple Newsam. Being surrounded by the elegance of the house was almost as awe inspiring as the works themselves, yet they seemed to shine beyond and somehow made the house feel muted and dull in comparison. The vivid colours that strike you as you walk into the first room, home to The Adoration of the Cage Fighters, were like a lighthouse in a sea of dark wood flooring and dim wallpaper. Armed with a pamphlet on the work and my trusty house guide that I had been given at the entrance, I inspected the work a little closer to see the detail and began to notice small similarities to my own life; I recognised the wallpaper in the house of Tim Rakewell’s grandmother, was like the wallpaper of my own grandparents’ house.

Slowly moving on to the next room, following a trail of people in Temple Newsam steward uniform, rather than the map, a friend noted that several paintings had been moved around and were now obscured by furniture to make room for the tapestries. It quickly became clear that it would have been a struggle to find venues in the city centre with enough space to house these mammoth artworks.


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Grayson Perry, The Agony In The Car Park, 2012. Photo © Stephen White


Agony in the Car Park did indeed scream in agony. The juxtaposition of the industrial scene and working mens’ club seemed uncomfortable amongst the furnishings of the south bedroom. The embarrassment of the character, Tim, seemed to echo through the room as a silent cry out for help or at least for the ground to open and swallow him up.

Continuing a procession through the house to the next piece, The Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close, felt a little less uncomfortable as the hero moves upward in class, shunned by his parents and the ‘smiling god of class mobility’, Jamie Oliver. Tim is escorted by his girlfriend into the ‘sun-lit uplands of middle class’ which is perfectly depicted by the figure at the forefront of the image: the bizarre middle-class arty lady. She looks remarkably like a number of creative practitioners on every art scene – the Leeds art scene being no exception!


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Grayson Perry, The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal, 2012. Photo © Stephen White


If ‘middle class’ is the ‘sun-lit uplands’ then each image depicted in the tapestries was faster approaching the sun in its Icarus-like saga. The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal, to me, evoked the phrase ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ with the hero and his wife relaxing in their rural second home with its modern vintage-not-vintage trappings. Again this felt like a contrast to the slightly dusty and faded south wing of Temple Newsam, until the next piece, The Upper Class at Bay. Tapestry number five felt much more at ease with its surroundings, this being due to its subject matter of the upper class with such houses and also to the now dim colours, as the sun begins to set on the story of Tim Rakewell.

The final tapestry #Lamentation does not show the end of the hero, but his aftermath. Tim Rakewell died disgracefully, clearly having succumbed to the life of the rich and famous, not caring what others thought of him or his glamorous second wife. His expensive car is wrapped around a signpost and his new bride’s expensive dress covered in his blood, while the man himself lies bleeding in his y-fronts. This forms a rather depressing end to ‘social mobility’ that started out in such a positive light.

As the text on the tapestry says: “All that money and he dies in the gutter”. The final line leaves the viewer with sobering thoughts as you wander through the splendid house wondering if it is all really worth it.

Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress is also on display at Temple Newsam for visitors to draw parallels. Perry’s tapestries are a modern look at the themes Hogarth played upon in his engravings and paintings, and as you examine them you begin to notice how little has changed between 1735 and 2012. ‘Living fast’ has always been in fashion in western civilization and it always will be, as I’m sure there will always be artists (or tabloids) to portray it for the world to see.

Ryan Thompson


The Vanity of Small Differences will be on display at Temple Newsam House until Sun 7th December.


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© Temple Newsam House

There are various activities, informal talks and tours being held at Temple Newsam to give visitors insight into the exhibition. Visit for more details or call 0113 3367460.


Upcoming events:

  • 18th October (2-4pm) Special Event as part of Ilkley Literature Festival. Temple Newsam House welcomes respected author Jenny Uglow to give an insight into the world and work of Hogarth in the context of his time. Ticket £8.
  • 25th, 26th & 28th October – 2nd November (11am – 12.30pm) ‘Halloweave’. Family visitors will be in with the chance of weaving their own light, bright multi-coloured artwork to take home.
  • 28th October (11am-12pm) ‘Wonderweave’. A delight for both art and dance lovers a-like – pick up a streamer and join a dancing weave across the house courtyard.
  • 30th October (11am-12.30 & 1.30-3.30pm) Tap Into Tapestries. Join in this artist-led workshop that will explore the art of tapestry making.
  • 13th November (2-4pm) Tea with the Curator. Meet Nigel Walsh the Curator of The Vanity of Small Differences for an in-depth look at this unique exhibition, a tour and a chance for discussion over tea and cake. £6.50 per person (including afternoon tea and entry to the House and exhibition)
  • 27th November Nigel Walsh & James Lomax (Leeds Art Fund) in Conversation. Discussing the exhibition and the importance of the show for Temple Newsam House



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