Recently I paid a visit to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to see Grayson Perry’s ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ tapestries. These amazing images explore British culture and tell a poignant and amusing story of class mobility, inspired by Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1732-33). I was very much impressed by these as I am  interested in British culture and British people and what makes them ‘British’. To me the tapestries also spoke a lot about our relationship with objects and things, which is my particular area of interest. They contained many of the objects associated with various sectors of society, the objects different people are fond of.

The 'upper class' tapestry
The ‘upper class’ tapestry

When I got home that evening I told my eight-year-old son about the tapestries and his response was: ‘Were the tapestries in a castle? All castles have tapestries.’ Amusing though his response was, he made an interesting a point. This made me think of the irony of something that is gently mocking the class culture of this country being something that would normally hang in a stately home, especially since Grayson Perry’s upper class tapestry is to me the most poignant.

The Triumph of Mark Antony and Cleopatra c.1670-80 - Powis Castle
The Triumph of Mark Antony and Cleopatra c.1670-80 – Powis Castle

While looking at the tapestries, I also spent some time watching the documentary that accompanied the project detailing the research Grayson carried out before making the tapestries. Listening to what he said about his study of the upper class in Britain made me think about the Powis Castle project and the elements of Powis that I have been looking at: namely, the objects and our reactions to them. One of the points Grayson made in the documentary was that we seem to regard the objects of the upper class, the objects we see in the various stately homes around the country as we visit them, as almost sacred. We view them as objects to be in awe of, to admire and to aspire to owning ourselves. We (‘we’ being mainly the middle classes) walk around the stately homes in a state of wonder and admiration regarding the interiors as the epitome of perfect taste. In fact, as Grayson argues, the objects should be questioned and not just accepted. Many of the objects might be really personal to the family, for example a collection of stuffed foxes or an old worn out chair, and many of them were originally actually just glitzy show-offs of wealth and power and are now since they have remained untouched for years appear rather worn and faded. The stately homes of Britain are lost in time. What is it about these stately homes that we love so much?

Talking to some of the people who work at Powis Castle, it amused me how reluctant many were to be negative about any of the objects of Powis, especially the one object I am focusing on: the Roman Cat. Is this an example of our feeling we should respect the ‘good taste’ of the upper classes? A lot of the comments I recieved centered on the cat’s appearance: the marble is too smooth, the statue isn’t particularly attractive, the cat doesn’t look real, the fur doesn’t look like fur, the posture is ugly, it looks as if it were made from plaster in a rubber mold, it looks like tourist tat. These comments were often preceded with: ‘I probably shouldn’t say this but’.

I have some sympathy for this poor cat - nobody likes him
I have some sympathy for this poor cat – nobody likes him

I think it is acceptable to be critical of the objects of the upper classes and we need to get over this reluctance to criticize and the feeling of disloyalty if we do criticize. Personally, I still love the cat, even if he isn’t genuinely Roman and was made in the mid-18th century for selling as tourist tat. Its the ability to provoke such strong emotion that I love about him.