Object of the month: The Vanity of Small Differences by Grayson Perry

Published 7 January 2016

We take a closer look at the series of tapestries as they go on display in Bath.

The Vanity of Small Differences is a series of six tapestries that Grayson Perry created while filming the documentary All in the Best Possible Taste. 'The vanity of small differences' is a Freudian term which means that we dislike no one quite so much as our nearest neighbour. It is suggested that this idea is a crucial part of our modern consumer culture: we buy things believing that we are expressing our uniqueness, but in fact we are adhering to a set of norms set out by our social class.

'Ever since I was a child I have been very aware of the visual environment people build around themselves', Perry wrote in the Telegraph. 'When I got older, I wanted to decode their choices. Why did my nan's front room, with its brass ornaments and pot plants, look like it did? Why do middle-class people love organic food and recycling? Why does the owner of a castle and 6,000 acres wear a threadbare tweed jacket? People seem to be curating their possessions to communicate consciously, or more often unconsciously, where they want to fit into society.'

Perry's tapestries are inspired by William Hogarth's moral tale A Rake’s Progress which follows Tom Rakewell, a young man who inherits a fortune, but fritters it away on sex, drinking and gambling, and ends up in a psychiatric ward. Hogarth used the paintings to satirise 18th-century society for the ways in which people tried to fit into certain (often 'the higher') social classes.

In a similar vein, The Vanity of Small Differences follows the journey of Tim Rakewell as he journeys through the social strata of modern Britain, from a working-class boy to a computer software millionaire.

“I thought it refreshing to use tapestries – traditionally status symbols of the rich – to depict a commonplace drama (though not as common as it should be): the drama of social mobility.”

  • Grayson Perry
  • Artist

Perry took the original narrative and updated it for contemporary society. Each tapestry is riddled with cultural references and ingenious product placement. Perry highlights not only the social class that his anti-hero is journeying through, but also the brands associated with it. Cans of Red Bull, a Cath Kidston bag and iPhones are testimony to his shrewd and humorous commentary. 'I thought it refreshing to use tapestries traditionally status symbols of the rich to depict a commonplace drama (though not as common as it should be): the drama of social mobility', Perry said about his work.

The first scene depicts Tim Rakewell as a babe in arms in Sunderland. He is sat on his mother's knee trying to get to her mobile phone (his main rival for her attention). The scene is called the Adoration of the Cage Fighters – it portrays two cage fighters coming up to Tim and giving him the symbols of the tribe's membership: the Sunderland football shirt and a miner's lamp.

In the second tapestry, The Agony in the Car Park, Tim's stepfather is singing and his mother is captivated by it. The stepfather is almost crucified against a shipyard crane because he himself is on the brink of social mobility he is moving away from traditional jobs and becoming a call centre manager.

The next tapestry is called The Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close. It depicts Tim with his middle-class girlfriend, passing through the miasmic barrier between lower and upper middle classes. Tim goes through a dinner party of a bourgeois home with mid-century British paintings on the wall and William Morris wallpaper.

Tim's journey continues through the other five tapestries. He sets up a software company which he later sells for a fortune to Richard Branson. He is becoming a member of the new upper class, but he can't become truly aristocratic himself. In The Upper Class at Bay, Tim and his wife stroll like Mr and Mrs Andrews in Gainsborough's renowned portrait of the landed gentry. As a 'fat cat', Tim has attracted occupy-style protests outside his house.

The story concludes with the sixth tapestry, #Lamentation. Tim crashes his Ferrari into a lamppost in a bloody accident and dies an untimely death. It serves as a reminder that regardless of our social classes, our existence is impermanent. It instils a resounding sense that despite our best efforts to differentiate ourselves from others, we are all remarkably similar.

The Vanity of Small Differences was acquired by the Arts Council Collection in 2013 with help from the Art Fund. The tapestries will be on display at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath from 9 January until 10 April 2016.

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