Grayson Perry, art and Julie’s House

A-House-for-Essex-Stour-EstuaryFor special occasions and celebrations many folk like to stay somewhere a little different, unique, historical or even perhaps theatrical, and now, added to the list of interesting residences available to let, there is ‘A House for Essex’ by Grayson Perry. This house is a fusion of art and architecture commissioned by  Living Architecture and built into existence from the collaboration of Grayson Perry with the architect Charles Holland of FAT Architects. Grayson Perry says of the house,

“It’s an ornate, terracotta covered temple and it’s by far the biggest artwork I’ll ever get to make.”

This three year collaborative process was made into a television documentary where Perry’s original drawings (more like illustrations for ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’ with a twist of Gaudí) become a breathtaking holiday home. Clips of the house can be seen on YouTube during a three minute news item interviewing Grayson Perry. Plus, if you’d like to see more fascinating photos including shots of the interiors visit ‘A House for Essex‘.

“There’s a story behind its creation and it’s even more bonkers than you thought!” muses Perry.

It turns out the house is a kind of autobiography and at the same time a biography of a fictional woman called Julie May Cope. It is also a 21st century shrine to Julie and mining her imagined everyday life provides much of the content of this artwork and its overall tone. It is an “Essex Taj Mahal” says Perry and he remarks

“The house is devoted to a fictional Essex everywoman.”

Julie tile Grayson Perry
One of the Julie tiles before glazing.

There is much to admire about this building. Ornate and ornamented it is the antithesis to the spare, ‘less is more’ contemporary architectural sensibility which dominates much of our recently built more innovative buildings. I think it is exciting that this chapel-like structure with its bold elaborate external finish passed the planning committee and got built in Essex. The polychromy and the almost Romanesque Revival semicircular arched windows reminds me of some of the grander Victorian buildings such as the Natural History Museum in London.

finished Julie tiles
Julie tiles ready for final inspection.

As an artist famous for his pots, tapestries and sculptures it is no surprise that his dream house is expressed as a combination of bas relief ceramic tiles, sculptural adornments and narrative wall hangings. For example all the tiles have been manufactured from Perry’s original clay work and it is in the detail of these designs and the art filled interior that his story of Julie is told.

Personally, I don’t see any issues with such an unusual building as Julie’s House adorning this part of rural Essex. The local setting is not just wheatfields and the River Stour, but in the background is Parkeston Quay, Harwich and across the other side of the estuary is the Port of Felixstowe, the UK’s busiest container port. I am a little biased about this part of the world as the river/estuary area from Manningtree down to the North Sea is one of my favourite places. But, the one aspect of the house that I do find disappointing is that it is essentially inward-looking. You look at the house almost as a discrete isolated whole and not at it within it’s setting. And, then inside, the whole artwork interior appears to encourage a confined engagement leading to contemplation and reflection. No overt connection is made with the external environment and, sadly, there’s no enormous panoramic window framing the glorious Stour Estuary. I suppose as a chapel-like building focussing inwards is appropriate, but perhaps a wayside chapel sited on a road into an Essex town would have made for a more believable backdrop for this ‘story house’ art. However, who wants to spend their celebration weekend on the busy A120 trunk road into Colchester!