The Gingerbread House.

Grayson Perry’s ‘A House for Essex’ has been likened to a gingerbread house. I’d say it looks more like  a cross between the Taj Mahal and a Victorian public convenience.

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On a dull January day when the ground was frozen too solid to work and I had finished examining each little shoot of every bulb and counted all the green spots on my snowdrops, we set off in the car and ended up over the border in Essex. The general feeling about Essex, in Suffolk where I live is- ‘There be dragons’ *, but I am fearless in my quest to find something new to entertain my blogging friends and also, my brother-in-law, who is an artist was staying with us and he was keen to see it. So off we went.

The house is one of five created for Alain de Botton’ s scheme, Living Architecture in collaboration with Charles Holland of  the London based architectures FAT.  His idea is to allow people to stay in houses designed by architects and artists. The House for Essex is so popular that you have to enter a ballot to get a chance to stay here. If you win you have to pay at least £850 for two nights and a lot more at weekends.

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The tiny village of Wrabness on the  muddy banks of the river Stour is not the sort of place you expect to see a shrine to the butt of hundreds of ‘Essex Girl’ jokes. The definition in the Oxford dictionary for ‘Essex Girl’ is far from flattering and indeed there is a petition to have it removed. Actually, it is appalling that this awful stereotype of the  dumb, promiscuous  peroxide-blonde,  is perpetuated in a dictionary. But Grayson Perry who is an Essex boy himself, celebrates the life of his fictional Essex girl, Julie May Cope; indeed she is shown here as the divine female.

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The story of her life and rise from a deprived background in Canvey  Island, her two marriages and death under the wheels of a take-away delivery moped is dramatised in tiles and inside on huge tapestries. There is a room devoted to both of her marriages and the deadly moped is hanging from the ceiling as a bizarre sort of chandelier.

There are four descending parts to the building  and it has been compared to Russian dollies, fitting one into the other.

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The roof is made of shining copper and there are about 2000 , olive green and white ceramic  tiles.  The symbols are the Essex shield, a  large swirly J for Julie, safety pins, cassette tapes, hearts and  wheels. Julie  is depicted as  a naked, pregnant woman with her arms raised in a hieratic quasi-religious gesture.

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This year the House for Essex has been nominated for the Meis van der Rohe award which is the highest accolade in European architecture. I am  not sure what to make of it. Perry admits that it is absolutely ‘bonkers’ and indeed it is. But the idea of a folly is not a new one. Indeed there is Freston Tower on the other side of the river which is a six storey Tudor folly. And at Pentlow, not too far away there is a seventy foot tall, Victorian tower built by a Vicar in 1859 because his parents liked that particular spot.  So the House for Essex carries on a tradition of eccentricity.

Pentlow Tower, Essex

Pentlow Tower, Essex

Eccentric it is and great fun, but is it art? That is a thorny question. Grayson Perry is the cross-dressing, self-publicising,  former winner of the Turner prize. In 2013,  he produced the four Reith lectures with typical flamboyance, dressed up in an astonishing frock and  heavy make-up which made him look like a cross between Dame Edna Everage and Little Bo-Peep. The title of the book he has written on the same theme as the lectures is appropriately called ‘Playing to the Gallery’.   He asked all the right questions about art- ‘What is good art and who decides?  But he failed to really answer them. He was too concerned with making the fawning audience laugh with one-liner gags. He is right that critics, curators, dealers and gallery owners are the arbiters of taste in art, but this  is not a new idea. It was addressed  in far more depth  by  Arthur Danto in two great books, ‘What Art is’ and  my favourite, ‘Beyond the Brillo Pad’. Perry is critical of the rise of curators and  awful arty jargon and the fact that art is big business . Ironically, it was the incredibly influential Saatchi who first made Perry famous.  Now he is very popular and at this rate he will soon be a ‘national treasure’. I am not sure why. I like his ceramic pots, some of them are beautiful, but I wish he didn’t have to make them ‘edgy’ and try to ‘push the boundaries’ in the words of these tiresome, arty clichés, by painting  obscene pictures on them. Some of them even have rude words written on them, which makes him seem like a naughty little boy trying to shock.

But enough about potty-mouthed potters, this is a gardening blog and it should be snowdrop time. The snowdrops are opening painfully slowly this year. In fact as the Pianist pointed out they should be renamed ‘Slowdrops’. ‘Three Ships’, ‘Faringdon Double’ and ‘Mrs. Macnamara’ have been going strong for ages and now at last  gradually, they are joined by buds on quite a few of the others. So soon I hope there will be more to show you.

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* I was joking about the dragons.  Actually, I love parts of Essex, specially the estuaries, and what John Betjeman called the ‘level wastes of sucking mud‘ are hauntingly beautiful.
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There are also beautiful rural parts which Betjeman described as:

The deepest Essex few explore
Where steepest thatch is sunk in flowers
And out of elm and sycamore
Rise flinty, fifteenth-century towers. ‘

He is talking about the the Essex he found in an Edwardian picture book but not much has changed, apart from the total disappearance of the majestic elm trees.

 

 

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44 Responses to The Gingerbread House.

  1. Christina says:

    You never fail to entertain Liz. I like the idea of being allowed to live in an architect designed house. BTW have you been watching the interesting program about amazing houses? It’s still available on iPlayer if you’ve missed it.

    • Chloris says:

      The ballot to stay in A House for Essex closes on 31st January. I rather fancy the Balancing Barn on the Suffolk coast or The Long House in Norfolk, both part of the Living Architecture scheme.

    • Chloris says:

      Sorry, I forgot to answer your question. No, I didn’t see the programme unfortunately, it sounds the sort of thing I would like. We don’t have a television and as we don’t have a licence we can’t watch it on catch-up either. Just now and then, I hear people talking about something really interesting, but on the whole we don’t need it as we prefer to read and listen to music. And the Pianist plays the piano every evening too.

  2. croftgarden says:

    I’m not sure about Grayson Perry, I suspect time will be the best arbiter. However, I think there is room for follies in the landscape, provided they surprise, intrigue, delight, amaze and most of all make us smile.
    Is counting grren spots on snowdrops a local sport or can anyone play?

    • Chloris says:

      I agree about follies, I love them, the more eccentric the better. Anyone can join in the green spot counting game. How else can we get through these dismal, dark days of winter?.I have a friend who even has snowdrops painted on her nails, each one different and quite accurate. Perhaps that is going a bit far.

  3. Steve says:

    I met Grayson a few years ago. A really nice guy. It was the time he did a series on Taste on the television and we went to see the tapestries that he has produced. They were great but he was amazed that we had travelled down from Leicestershire to see them and we spent an hour talking about the art we did etc.

  4. My husband, the retired Architect, loved the building. I, however, would rather go to Snowdrop Sunday at the Easton Lodge.

    • Chloris says:

      I am glad your husband liked it, was he familiar with it before? And how do you know about Easton Lodge? I might go, but my favourite place for snowdrops is Anglesey Abbey. I hope to get a place on one of their snowdrop tours.

      • no, he was not familiar with the building, but having spent over 40 years in the design profession he got the idea. I am too landscapy for that sort of high concept stuff – Easton Lodge, just trolling around about Essex online as I have no notion of Essex and was curious.

      • Chloris says:

        The rural parts of Essex are lovely , but the big towns are horrible and as you get nearer to London-oh dear!

      • Hmm, I have probably been there and didn’t realize. Can you tell me again the Nerine that you think will grow here? The bulbs are probably available now

      • Chloris says:

        Sorry Amy, I missed this. I should think any nerine would be fine for you. You should be able to grow the lovely jewel- like sarniensis hybrids which aren’t hardy here.

      • that is it! thank you, I think it is time to order bulbs for spring planting.

  5. Julie says:

    Interesting post Liz, its good that flamboyant characters, designs and actions provoke response, otherwise how would we measure what’s important to each of us. I had to google the house as I could not quite fathom why anyone would spend that vast amount of money on a stay there.
    I prefer your snowdrops of course and even then I can’t understand why folk spend vast sums on named varieties.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Julie. I certainly wouldn’t pay a fortune to stay there, but I would love to look inside.
      Snowdrops are big business these days. It makes you think that the prices are inflated because some collectors buy them to make a quick buck. Do you remember when Galanthus ‘Elizabeth Harrison sold for £720 on eBay a few years ago? Apparently it died shortly after. I am too scared to pay big prices for them because the really pricey ones have a habit of disappearing. I don’t know whether they rot or get eaten.

  6. Bodger says:

    I find that the artist’s burble attending many modern pieces often contains more artistry than the piece it explains. Love Grayson Perry; his eccentricity follows a long tradition of peculiar Englishmen pushing the envelope or in his case, the petticoat. His house, the folly and your snowdrops look interesting. Thank you.

    • Chloris says:

      I agree, they have to write lengthy jargon to make the empty canvases seem important . I often think the artists must be amazed when they read about what their paintings represent.
      Grayson seems to be the marmite of artists. I am all for eccentricity, but I am not sure about his pots. They are visually appealing, but his striving to make them contemporary and edgy with obscene imagery obviously appeals to Saatchi and his ilk, but I find it tiresome. It’s all be done before, over and over again. We are no longer shocked, just bored.

  7. Cathy says:

    What an interesting post, Chloris – good to see a close up of the house as up to now I had only heard a description of it on Radio 4. I remember hearing some of the lectures GP did and finding his view refreshing, but didn’t hear enough to gauge that he was playing to his audience. Love Croft Garden’s idea that counting green spots on slowdrops could be a sport! Mine have been similarly slow but this milder weather is beginning to chivvy them up a bit

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Cathy. I was quite impressed when I saw the lectures but then when I read the transcripts to do this post, I thought they rather lacked substance.
      Do you think counting green spots on our snowdrops could become a competitive sport? One in which only extreme nerds can take part?

  8. snowbird says:

    As always, a marvelous post! I’m so grateful that you are fearless and venture where angels fear to thread…..struth, a gingerbread folly…
    Beautiful snowdrops and that photo of the tree is gorgeous.xxx

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Dina. Yes, I fearlessly went to Essex for this post. Almost as bold and brave as your forthcoming trip to Malaysia. Except I didn’t need a pith helmet..

  9. What a bizarre place, Liz, your observations are always so insightful and thought provoking. The snow drops were a nice tonic.

  10. Brian Skeys says:

    You always find something different and interesting to blog about Chloris. I may not like his art work, but I applaud our national eccentricity and that we are free to be so. Essex is always worth visiting just for Beth Chatto’s garden.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Brian. Indeed, I love eccentrics too, the are my favourite sort of people. Have you been to Hyde Hall? That is worth a visit these days.

      • Brian Skeys says:

        We visited at the same time Chloris, we spent a week in 2012 in your part of the world visiting gardens. It provided the material for my talk ‘Inspirational Gardens of The East’. There is a brief description in the, My Garden Talks, page on the blog.

  11. I love the house! Never heard of it, never heard of Grayson Perry (until I just looked him up on the internet), but I think the house is epic. Yes, it reminds me of the Taj Mahal, but I also see ancient Mayan ruins, stacked like blocks and covered with graphic symbols of life and culture. And what culture! Julie May Cope may have lived and died in Essex, but she is everywhere…trying to do her best. To me, it speaks (tongue in cheek) to the strength and resiliency of the human spirit. But then, that’s art, isn’t it? All a matter of interpretation.

    • Chloris says:

      Yes indeed, you get what he was trying to do. Perry said ‘it is a temple to thwarted female intelligence and drive’. It was a bit unkind of me to liken it to a Victorian public convenience; it was all the the shiny tiles that made me think of that. It is really a shrine to every woman and the divine goddess in all of us.. .

  12. Flighty says:

    An interesting post and good pictures. I have to say that house is not to my taste at all, nor am I a fan of Perry. xx

  13. Chloris says:

    Thank you Flighty. Well, as I have said Perry is like marmite, some of us like him, some don’t and some of us just can’t make up our minds.

  14. bittster says:

    I am a fan of the eccentric but more on the knickknack scale rather than the building size. Still I guess we don’t all dip into the same wallet.
    Brave of you to take on this adventure for the sake of your readers. Slowdrops did make me laugh!

  15. Hoe hoe grow says:

    The house is totally bonkers but who doesn’t like a big slice of British eccentricity ? I hadn’t heard anything about it, so thank you, Chloris, for bringing it to my attention.
    Btw, have you any theories as to why things are slow to get started this season? I have been blog hopping and it seems to be a universal cry. It has not been especially cold, but things like Iris Reticulata are later than previous years.

    • Chloris says:

      I don’ t understand why everything is so late. Snodrops, crocuses and hellebores- everything. My little Cedric Morris daffodils which are usually open for Christmas have only just opened. Strange, specially after last year when everything was early.

  16. I am not sure we should worry too much about whether something is art or not. If one person enjoys looking at somebody’s creation and another doesn’t neither of them are right or wrong. In fact it is good. Being different is good. The same goes for many things, including plants. A matter of opinion. Except of course for Cotoneater horizontalis, which is definitely horrible. No debate. I am quite right and anyone who thinks differently is very wrong. 😉

    • Chloris says:

      Taste hey? We have had the cotoneaster debate before and I think you should save your venom for Hypericum or the devil’ s own plant; Symphoricarpos albus. Bees love Cotoneaster horizontalis flowers, it has jolly red berries and it is so nice and horizontal. Whereas hypericum with its rusty leaves and nasty common flowers and its suckering habit should be banned.

      • Ha! That made me laugh especially the “nice and horizontal” bit. I’m not too keen on hypericum either! It seems I can’t be convinced about C.H. I can’t be taught to whistle either. Not yet anyway. 🙂

  17. Pingback: Bridging the Gap | Rambling in the Garden

  18. Lavinia Ross says:

    An interesting post, Chloris. Thank you for a brief tour around ‘A house for Essex’.

    Your snowdrops are at the same stage as mine.

  19. Chloris says:

    Thank you Lavinia. If we could just have a bit of sun then the snowdrops would shake out their skirts and show themselves properly.

  20. I appreciate all the visual humor – though at first I thought Julie was a real person and I was quite appalled. Maybe I should still be appalled, I don’t know. Beyond the Essex Girl theme, the house is really striking – it reminds me of the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg. (Now there’s a cheerful name for a building.) Interesting to learn about the associations with Essex, sounds a bit like how New Jersey is regarded in parts of the US. We have only been in London and Sussex, obviously we need to get around more. But if we do get to Essex I’ll keep my eyes open for unruly mopeds.

  21. Chloris says:

    Oh I wouldn’t bother going to Essex. Drive straight through and come to lovely Suffolk. It is sometimes known as Silly Suffolk but that is a gross calumny.

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