Grayson Perry’s Essex House Tapestries come to Winchester

Grayson Perry’s monumental Essex House Tapestries depicting the Life of Julie Cope have arrived at The Arc, Winchester, bringing the artist's wit, charm and penchant for grandiose normality to The Gallery. Before the exhibition opens tomorrow, the exhibition team would like to share some behind-the-scenes details with you. 

Who is Grayson Perry? 

It is only right that we start with a brief description of the artist, as he is a figure of considerable gravity and showmanship and much of his work is rooted in his biography. Perry was born in a Chelmsford council estate into a volatile broken home. He was educated at Portsmouth Polytechnic, not far from us, before taking classes in pottery. Perry then won award after award and became a Royal Academician, working in ceramics, pottery, tapestry and more. His education, life experiences and innate artistic curiosity have combined to such emphatic effect that he has become an RA and been knighted and hosted numerous award-winning TV shows. So effective is the artist's balancing of old and new, grandiose and mundane, popular and niche in subject matter, medium and execution that his figurative style can speak to nearly anyone. Accessibility and nuance do not always go hand in hand, but Perry’s work defies this. This inspired our decision to show the artist in Winchester for the first time. 

Wowed by the wonder of Walthamstow 

In 2014, we welcomed the Walthamstow tapestry to The Gallery, Perry’s second tapestry piece, a huge work that Perry described as like a "religious fresco celebrating obscure gods and beliefs". This piece interspersed brand names with scenes from everyday life, as a river of bloody afterbirth connected figures of life and death. An unforgettable statement, this work drew impressively from sources such as the Bible and the Bayeux tapestry. In Perry's designs, polo players became Norman knights, and banks charted a doomed course down a river of blood in imagery that recalls a popular idiom (sold down the river) and would not be out of place in ancient apocalyptic literature. Perry's bankers are guiding the ship to hell.

Exhibition shot of the Walthamstow tapestry at The Gallery 

This hanging was gloriously cluttered, but every motif was meaningful and accessible. The near 'horror vacui' (filling every space) approach, reminiscent of early attic pottery, was employed by Perry with great intent in this megalith of a work, turning heads and bringing visitors back to The Gallery again and again.   

With the success of this exhibition, we have long wanted to bring more of the Turner prize-winning artist's works to Winchester. Therefore, when the opportunity arose to bring Perry's works to Winchester again, thanks to the Craft Council, who purchased editions of Perry’s Essex House Tapestries in 2016, we quickly took it up. 

The return of Perry and the arrival of the Essex House Tapestries 

We could not be happier about what has fallen into our hands due to the success of our past Grayson Perry exhibition. We have since been buoyed even further, as the two tapestries and the accompanying ballad are works developed for the heart of one of Grayson’s most ambitious and complete works. The story of Julie Cope provided the focal point of the production of A House for Essex, enabling him to richly adorn the house with examples of the material and subject matter he is so famed for, while maintaining cohesion. 

A Perfect Match, Grayson Perry, 2015. Crafts Council Collection: 2016.18. Acquired with Art Fund support (with a contribution from The Wolfson Foundation) and a donation from Maylis and James Grand. Courtesy the artist, Paragon | Contemporary Editions Ltd and Victoria Miro. © Grayson Perry 

Grayson Perry put so much of his time and himself into the tapestries. These works are fictitious narratives, but in them are reverberations of the real lives of both his family and the people of Essex. It is clear from the works that they are deeply personal, which makes them deeply relatable. He has harnessed his closeness to the subject matter, perceptive capacities and artistry to poignant effect.   

Beyond being personal to Perry, these works will undoubtedly be close to the bone for many visitors. The archetypal characters present in his work and their idiosyncratic natures, flaws and fleeting ambitions will speak to so many people, as this is a fantasy of the realist kind.   

But the parable of Julie Cope is ultimately one of hope and struggle. Julie defies the odds and wrenches back some control of her life, something that is never too late to do. Immortalized in tapestry and aligned with many devices of the display once reserved for biblical or classical scenes, Julie Cope rises like a Homeric hero to bring hope that our struggles are worthwhile.  

In Its Familiarity, Golden, Grayson Perry, 2015. Crafts Council Collection: 2016.19. Acquired with Art Fund support (with a contribution from The Wolfson Foundation) and a donation from Maylis and James Grand. Courtesy the artist, Paragon | Contemporary Editions Ltd and Victoria Miro. © Grayson Perry 


As we progressed with the preparation of the exhibition, the story of Julie Cope continued to unravel before us in all its dimensions. Seeing the works on the wall and hearing the ballad play around us brings the complexities of the artist's creations into focus. So many details emerge anew. The protagonist's demise depicted in the tapestry reminds us of the unforgiving nature of fate, but Perry provides a spiritual silver lining in the ballad. These intrigues brilliantly persist across the whole work.  

With a vastness of varying bright colours and filled with brilliant illustrations, this exhibition is a feast for the eyes, filled with many layers of decipherable narrative that will keep you looking and thinking again and again. 

Book your ticket to see the show here. 

Grayson Perry: Essex House Tapestries - The Life of Julie Cope | The Arc Winchester – arts, reading and community
The Gallery is excited to see the return of artist Grayson Perry, as part of a special tour.

The exhibition runs Friday 15 March – Wednesday 12 June 2024 in The Gallery at The Arc, Winchester.

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