“Our deeds still travel with us from afar/And what we have been makes us what we are.” – George Eliot, Middlemarch
18 November saw the opening of Firstsite’s latest exhibition, The Life of Julie Cope by Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry. The show features four large-scale tapestries, woodcuts and ceramic works among other work related to Perry’s A House for Essex (2015) – all playing on the theme of local identity.
The protagonist of this show, Julie Cope, lives out her days on a trail from Canvey Island through to Colchester high street where an unfortunate collision with a delivery drive on a moped cuts her life short. The tapestries, on loan from the Crafts Council Collection, are strewn with Perry’s usual subtleties, all pointing at the common theme of identity and social history in Essex. As Perry himself has said of the work, it represents ‘the trials, tribulations, celebration and mistakes of an average life’. Cope’s journey across Essex is both physical and emotional, echoing George Eliot’s sentiment of where we have been making us who we are today.
A House for Essex lies in Wrabness, overlooking the Stour Estuary in north-east Essex. Perry designed the house in 2015 in collaboration with Charles Holland of FAT Architeture. It has been described by Holland as a ‘radical statement about the capacity of architecture for narrative and communication to tell a rich and complex story.’ Acting as a ‘shrine’ to fictional character Julie Cope, the building is described as an ‘ornate ceramic-clad, gingerbread-like edifice’. It is chapel-like, stunningly secular and notably ‘Perry’ in its bright colours and patterns that contrast so heavily with the drab Essex countryside. It was commissioned by Living Architecture, which was founded to change public perceptions about modern architecture.
The meticulous design of the house includes everything from the patented ‘Julie tile’ that depicts totems of Julie’s life: a nappy pin, a mixtape and the letter J. Woodcuts from the project that depict 6 stages of Julie’s life will also appear in the show, alongside an audio recording of The Ballad of Julie Cope: Perry’s penned epic that both opens and closes Julie’s life.
This exhibition entwines narrative with local culture, hopes with dream and love with loss. Perry’s usual dry observations of contemporary British culture align themselves with the quietness of life, providing a new sentimental angle to his work about his home county.
The Life of Julie Cope runs from 18 November 2017 until 18 February. For more details, visit www.firstsite.uk