Jeremy Deller: Inspirations

  • 20 January 2012

Turner Prize-winner Jeremy Deller recalls the art and museums that inspired him as a child…

Jeremy Deller

Jeremy Deller

Turner Prize-winner Jeremy Deller recalls the art and museums that inspired him as a child…

I remember the first piece of contemporary art I ever saw - a Duane Hanson sculpture, one of overweight tourists, which was in a group sculpture show at the Serpentine Gallery in 1973, when I was seven. I found it very attractive, as it was quite obvious really, as well as being uncanny and odd.

My parents used to take me to galleries and museums - especially museums such as the Horniman in South London, which was local to us. The ethnographic material really appealed to me, especially the masks. They also had a torture chamber chair and an amazing Buddhist woodcarving showing some people going to heaven and others going to hell. I used to love looking at the unpleasantness of hell in this small but quite detailed carving. I recently went back to the museum to try and find it, but it’s not on display any more.

A wealth of material

It wasn’t really art that I was interested in so much as museums as a whole, and the experience of being in them. There was such a wealth of material, you didn’t really know what you were going to see next. It was so exciting exploring museums and discovering things. I really preferred museums to galleries, because children engage more with objects.

Apart from its wonderful aquarium, the Horniman was a bit like the Natural History Museum and Oxford’s Pitt Rivers all in one. It was a surprising assembly of objects with no hierarchy. As a child you’re not really interested in the history of an object or how old it is, you’re more interested in how it looks and what it might do. It’s a much more basic, rather pure interpretation. You take things at face value, and I think that still holds true for me to some extent.

But I do remember some paintings from childhood: John Singer Sargent’s Gassed at the Imperial War Museum, which is very striking, and Delaroche’s Execution of Lady Jane Grey in the National Gallery. It shows Lady Jane Grey about to have her head chopped off, and is almost Photorealist in style.

Changing tastes

All these pieces, which I saw before the age of eight, are quite grotesque when you think about it. I suppose my tastes did a change a bit as I matured, but at the Courtauld Institute I studied Baroque painting, which is quite grisly at times. When I went to Rome to look at the Baroque, I got the same excitement from wandering round the churches there as I did from wandering round the Horniman or the Natural History Museum: that same sense of discovery, and not quite knowing what’s round the corner.

There’s nothing I like more than visiting a town for the first time, wherever it is in the world, and going into the local museum or gallery, because you just don’t know what’s going to be inside. I don’t really want to find out what’s in the museum beforehand, I just want to go to it and be surprised by it.

Explorers in their own country

In my own work I don’t want to give too much away, I want to surprise myself. The Folk Archive - our account of contemporary popular British culture - was about me and Alan Kane, the other curator, going around Britain and looking at surprising things and bringing them back to London.

When we left where we were staying in the morning we really hoped that by the evening we would have found something we could never have imagined. So we felt a bit like explorers in our own country. We were hoping to find things that we as artists could never make or imagine, and we did.

Originally published in Art Quarterly, Winter 2011