Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years focuses on the formative years of one of Britain’s most recognisable artists, revealing the creative works he made between 1982 and 1994.
The exhibition planning process began with a public callout to track down works from the 1980s and 1990s, which Perry himself had no record of and many of which he had not seen for years. This was an unusual approach – our exhibitions often start with research of museum collections, but here we pieced together the story from the extraordinary responses we received.
The catalogue was as much about recording the artworks as telling the story of the unedited, early Perry, who graduated from art school in the early 1980s and quickly adopted ceramics as his primary medium.
We wanted the catalogue to represent the art of Perry’s early years, but also the people of the time and the environment in which he worked. Perry worked alongside other experimental artists including the Neo Naturists in the freewheeling world of 1980s London. This is an area that had been touched on in other books by and about Perry, but never as the main focus.
We were thrilled to discover snapshots from house parties at Perry’s squat in Crowndale Road, north London, performances by the Neo Naturists and private views at James Birch Fine Art, which are as important in understanding the context as the works themselves.
Perry himself contributed an essay, Climbing Everest Without Oxygen, to the book, along with Tate’s Andrew Wilson, who focused on the artistic context in which Perry emerged. I wrote about his distinctive style and iconography, exploring themes of gender, identity and ceramic history. Sylvie Broussine, the assistant curator at the Holburne Museum, contributed a chronology of the artist’s life alongside cultural and world events.
Apart from the creative side and the writing process, the logistics of producing the catalogue were significant: we had 78 objects photographed and more than 50 snapshots digitised, which meant a lot of credit lines and copyright permissions to sort out. Working with the publisher Thames and Hudson on the book was great but so different to producing publications in-house.
Its method involved having two simultaneous editing processes, one for image proofing and one for text, so we had to get our heads around looking at one proof for images and another to check all the commas and full stops.
We didn’t have long to produce the book so we relied on many people’s cooperation to make it happen, including the lenders of works, who helped us photograph them, the team at Perry’s gallery – Victoria Miro – and Perry’s dealer in the 1980s, James Birch, who helped us identify unfamiliar faces in the photographs. It was a voyage of rediscovery and we saw a whole different side of Perry and his work.
One day I got an email with some photographs taken by the artist Matthew Lewis, including one of Perry dressed as his alter-ego Claire sitting beside one of the pots in the exhibition, Armageddon Feels So Very Re-assuring, in its unfired state. It was such an amazing photograph we knew straight away that it had to be the front cover.
The catalogue was produced alongside the exhibition, which opens this month before touring to York Art Gallery and the Sainsbury Centre, Norwich.
Catrin Jones is a curator at the Holburne Museum, Bath. Grayson Perry: The Pre-Therapy Years is at the Holburne Museum on 25 January-25 May
Edited by Catrin Jones and Chris Stephens, £19.95, Thames and Hudson, ISBN 978-0-5000-9-4198