Sunderland in tapestry

Grayson Perry the man on the telly...

Grayson Perry the man on the telly…

All about…

The tapestries titled ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ by Grayson Perry with their wonderful imagery some of which is based on religious works by amongst others, Andrea Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini and Tomasso Masaccio hangs in Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens until 29 September 2013.

The story of the tapestry is both the story of a character Grayson Perry made up called Tim Rakewell who is from Sunderland and the people Grayson Perry met in his documentary ‘All in the Best Possible Taste’.

Tim is based on Tom Rakewell in William Hogarth’s ‘The Rakes Progress’, a story told in eight paintings of a young man inheriting wealth, dissipating that wealth through the usual 18th century vices of drink, gambling, and debauchery, marrying an older woman for her wealth and losing that fortune to drink, gambling and debauchery and to end his life in Bedlam via the debtors prison.

Tim Rakewell’s journey takes a different course to Tom Rakewell of Hogarth’s ‘Rakes Progress’ and we first meet Tim twice in the ‘Adoration of the Cage Fighters’


In 1973 Sunderland had an FA Cup winning football team, mines and shipyards. It also had young lads with blow dried hair, shirts with huge collars, flared trousers and platform shoes and the hope of acquiring a sun tan if the weather got out this summer. It also had young lasses who wore short skirts, platform shoes and eye shadow in colours bordering on the gaudy and a slightly streaky suntan that they got from a bottle. There was no dressing down for a night out in 1973.

In 2013 Sunderland had a football team in the top flight, one of the most successful car plants in Europe, a burgeoning creative industry, and call centres. It also has young lads with product in their hair, shirts that fit the gym toned bodies that are adorned with tattoos and they have sun tans that were acquired on a lads week away to sunnier climes. Young lasses wear their hair big and wear beautiful dresses with bling to match and suntans, if not acquired on a lasses week away to sunnier climes, are topped up with spray tan. There is no dressing down for a night out in 2013.

In the ‘Adoration of the Cage Fighters’ four women dressed for a night out in beautiful dresses, big hair, bling and spray tan, stand with their arms around each other while two heavily muscled, heavily tattooed cage fighters hold, with some deference, a miners lamp, and a replica Sunderland AFC shirt. On the walls are pictures of a shipyard and a Lowry painting of the seaside.

The image of the cage fighters, Grayson Perry tells us, has echoes of Andrea Mantegna’s ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’. In Mantegna’s painting two shepherds adore the Virgin and Child while Joseph sits sleeping. In the tapestries the cage fighters appear to give adoration to their football club and their industrial heritage.

Tim appears twice in the ‘Adoration of the Cage Fighters’. Once on his mothers knee vying for attention with her smartphone and a second time as a four year old standing on the stairs on his way up to a lonely night of screen watching. A picture of his absent father hangs on the wall behind him.

Another picture hangs on the wall, that of a university graduate. We meet the university graduate in the first part of Grayson Perry’s documentary on class. The first part of this documentary considers the working class and to find out more about the working class Grayson Perry came to Sunderland. Education is considered a working class escape and it is suggested in the ‘Adoration’ that Tim may well take that escape.


Sunderland in the seventies when the shipyards and mines existed could boast many working men’s clubs. Every mining area had it’s clubs many are now gone often replaced by housing. The trades in the shipyards had their clubs such as the Boilermakers which is now part of the University campus. The Boilermakers thrived with it’s comedians and Sunday morning strippers. Some new clubs have appeared briefly with the rise of new industries. Nissan Sports and Social Club still exists and reflects the huge employment that car manufacturing has brought to Sunderland. Hepworth and Grandage club at Southwick still survives although Hepworth and Grandage as a company doesn’t.

The clubs had their cliches, the bingo, the meat raffle, the club singers, the interruption of the club singers for the meat raffle. Mens pastimes were often the Friday and Saturday night in the club and in any other free moment at the allotment, or fishing or playing or at the football.

Hepworth and Grandage club or ‘Heppies’ appears in Grayson Perry’s tapestry ‘The Agony of the Car Park’.

One of the largest images in the tapestry is the ‘club singer’ standing huge in front of a shipyard crane which makes the sign of the cross in the background. His hand is held by Tim’s mother who appears to be finding solace of religious proportion from this act. If this was opera tears would be shed. The meat raffle is at their feet.

Grayson Perry tells us that the image is a distant relative to Giovanni Bellini’s ‘Agony in the Garden’. Bellinni’s painting shows Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and crucifixion while his disciples lay asleep around him.

In the background of the tapestry engineering skills have been expended on hot cars. While in other parts of the tapestry people work their allotments or fish the Wear.

Tim again appears twice in the tapestry. Once playing happily with his step grandad outside the pigeon cree. A particular pigeon cree, a pigeon cree in Ryhope that now happens to be a listed building. And we see Tim for the second time at the feet of the singer who is his stepdad. In Tim’s school bag is a copy of Your Computer, an indication of where Tim’s future lies.

All about… again…

The tapestries then move Tim through the classes.

They laughed at his accent but welcomed him into the middles classes in the ‘Expulsion from 8 Eden Close’ with a central image based on Tomasso Masaccio’s ‘Adam and Eve Banished from Paradise’.

In the ‘Annunciation of the Virgin Deal’ Tim, after therapy after the death of his mother becomes The Guardian newspapers headline ‘A Geeks Rise’ and the iPad version of the FT has for a main story ‘Rakewell who grew up in a terraced house in Sunderland… sells to Virgin for £270 million.’ Grayson Perry tells us the central image is based on three 14th and 15th century paintings of the ‘Annunciation’. Behind the central image can be seen the mirror that appears in Jan Van Eycks painting the ‘Arnolfini Wedding’. Looking closely in the mirror there appears to be a light haired gentleman taking photos.

In ‘The Upper Class at Bay’ Tim and his wife stroll as if they were Mr and Mrs Andrews in a Gainsborough through a land populated by protesters carrying signs that say ‘Rich is Bad’, ‘Tax is Good’, ‘Pay Your Taxes Tim’ and one protester with the sign ‘No War But Class War’ as St Hubert.

Tim’s story comes to an end in #Lamentation which Grayson Perry tells us is based on Rogier van de Weyden’s ‘The Lamentatio’.

In the tapestries and his documentary Grayson Perry seems to find in Sunderland that communities haven’t disappeared with the industry that created them but are maybe based on who you are. Whether that is based on the gym, tattoos, hot cars, allotments, big hair, spray tan, bling, beautiful dresses, football, a shared history or Friday night out.

A friend who moved to Sunderland tells me she loves this city but gets annoyed when locals ask her why she would want to stay here, shouldn’t we like ourselves more she would suggest.

Grayson Perry came here, saw something he liked, created six tapestries full of beautiful imagery, based two of those tapestries on the working class of Sunderland and had the Sunderland born hero of the whole opera walk through the rest.

The people of Sunderland must be doing something right I just wish I knew what it was.

Hey ho!

Oh by the way I did much of the fact checking, artists names, titles of paintings, dates painted, history behind them, why Grayson Perry chose them, and all that kind of stuff by using the ‘Grayson Perry’ app by Aimer Media. I’m not on commission it just deserves a mention as it is a bit nice to use, (please add in words of your choice here like ‘intuitive’ or ‘sexy’, you know all those words people use to describe apps they are happy with). I would put the link to it but we are all clever enough to go into the app shop and type ‘Grayson Perry’.

About Stella MacQueen

Sheila and Stella sitting in a tree... K.I.S.S.I.N.G.
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