Outsider artists and the caricaturing of Essex


Two Essex artists have grabbed my attention this week. Centuries apart, they reveal not only the changing culture and demography of my home county but also the changing nature of outsidership.

We’ll start with John Constable (1776-1837) – a candidate to dignify the new £20 note (you can vote for him here). Born and raised on the Essex-Suffolk border, Constable eventually gave his name to the lower Stour valley he painted in the style of the Old Dutch Masters he so admired.

Part of the English romantic movement, his love for his childhood home yielded depictions of rural life – such as The Hay Wain, Dedham Vale, Flatford Mill and The Cornfield – that, as well as becoming part of English consciousness, form the idealised image every Essex man and woman has of their tribal homeland. Indeed, in the 1960-70s, it was a rare Essex home that didn’t have one of the four (or perhaps Dedham Lock and Mill) gracing their “lounge” wall.

Yet John was not destined to become an artist: he had to fight for it. His father, Golding Constable – a wealthy corn merchant and the owner of Flatford Mill – was keen for him to take over the family business. The elder Constable even arranged for young John to meet a professional artist, John Thomas Smith, with Smith primed to dissuade him from viewing art as anything other than a hobby. Yet the idealistic youth persisted and, after winning a place at the Royal Academy, persuaded his father to agree a small stipend for his maintenance.

Of course, John’s route to “finding meaning” was not unusual – with many of the nineteenth century’s most famous artists (even those claiming near-starvation in pursuit of their passion) in reality relying on modest but liveable private incomes from family wealth. These are the “eccentric insiders” I talk about in The Outside Edge – using their privileges and insider knowledge to gain an edge while pursuing individualistic creative careers.

That said, as a merchant’s son (rather than an aristo), Constable was hardly a full-on insider, and his outsider-creds were further enhanced while at the RA. Here he was encouraged (even bullied) towards the artistic needs of Britain’s burgeoning empire, which involved undertaking portraiture or military painting for the imperial classes.

Yet Constable resisted in order to pursue his passion for painting agrarian landscapes – even comparing the Stour valley favourably with the Lake District (which he thought too lonely, while his Essex/Suffolk paintings teem with rural life). He declined an artistic residency at Great Marlow Military College, a refusal that infuriated the RA’s master who declared it the end of Constable’s nascent artistic career.

In his defence, John wrote a letter that reveals – not only the agonising choices outsiders face when pressured by others – but his determination to seek clarity, truth and meaning (a key outsider requisite) no matter what the cost.

“The great vice of the present day is bravura [parading your skill],” he wrote, “an attempt to do something beyond the truth.”

It’s this existentialist quest for authenticity and personal truth that makes Constable a true outsider: a man seeking meaning for his life, no matter what the cost.

Grayson Perry, meanwhile, appears to be someone who sought meaning, found fame, and is only now seeking truth. Brought up in the suburban flatlands of mid-Essex, family stress (his father left due to his mother’s infidelity) and straitened finances caused the boy Grayson to retreat into a fantasyland of his own make-believe: a common childhood departure for outsiders in stressful but uninspiring environments (me included).

Yet Perry – already battling with transvestism (something of a no-no in the heartlands of working-class Toryism) – was fortunate enough to pass his 11+ and win a place at Chelmsford’s renowned King Edward VI Grammar School. Here, he was encouraged to study art and – via a foundation course at Braintree College – undertook a BA in art at Portsmouth Poly, graduating in 1982.

A “hand to mouth existence” followed – with Grayson searching for identity among the punks and New Romantics of early-80s London. Meanwhile, he started lessons in pottery and ceramics at the Central Institute, and found the medium “enthralling” – its formality making his anarchic and explicit depictions of sexual perversion (including sadomasochism, bondage and transvestism) all the more shocking.

Grayson had discovered his thing, which was in corrupting what he called the “honest pot” with thematic narratives of his own stressful upbringing, family dysfunction and child abuse. So unique was his work that, when accepting the Turner Prize in 2003, he stated that the judges found his pottery harder to contemplate than his transvestism (he received the award dressed as his alter-ego Wendy).

Perry found creative expression despite genuine disadvantage: surmounting both cultural and economic barriers to achievement. Yet that doesn’t stop me feeling discomforted by his increasing obsession with modern Essex life. Indeed, I’m becoming worried that, what’s dressed as romanticism and empathy is, in fact, a sly form of mockery.

While presented as enquiry (his search for truth), my concern at his veiled disdain has been bubbling for a while. Yet it erupted with this week’s launch – to much hype and fanfare (including four articles in the same day’s Guardian) – of A House for Essex.

Ironically built on the banks of the Stour estuary – a short punt downstream from “Constable Country” – the house is what Grayson calls the “Taj Mahal of Essex”. It’s a monument to his love of a fictional, hard-pressed, Essex “everywoman” called Julie Cope, whose life (from Canvey Island to Colchester) is depicted in the artefacts and hangings thematically adorning the various rooms. Of course, Essex produces few art critics, so the art establishment has unquestioningly marvelled at the creativity and guile of it all: the building is, after all, quite something.

Yet have they accepted his professed championing of Essex normality too willingly – when it could be interpreted as an underhand insult to Essex values, tastes and aspirations? The second husband called Rob, the “dream” holiday to India, the glass of Merlot, her perverse death caused by a pizza delivery moped:  hmmm – I worry this is not a celebration of “normal” but a send-up of “trivial” lower middle class lives. Is Grayson – an activist from Labour’s fashionista wing – attacking that very Essex (indeed English) desire to “get on”?

I hope not, though he confessed that many people in the Wrabness area (where the house is located) may view him and the project team (including the architects FAT) as “a bunch of pretentious metropolitan wankers”. Quite.

That said, I’m probably being over-sensitive. After all, Constable’s depiction of Essex was equally caricatured. In reality, the bucolic lives he depicted – whether threshing corn, working barges or washing clothes – were, (to quote Hobbes), “nasty, brutish and short”.

Ultimately, both artists are Essex-escapees, though ones claiming their former territory in order to “find meaning”. Once comfortably ensconced within the intelligentsia of North London (Constable died in Hampstead, Perry lives in Islington), however, Essex simplicity (old and new) can be romanticised, parodied and even mocked to generate art for the delectation of their new insider tribe – knowing that the natives will lap up the attention anyway.



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