‘A House for Essex’ created by Grayson Perry and FAT Architecture is unlike any other kind of art experience that I have had. One of a series of houses built for Living Architecture that you can rent outright, it is nevertheless different from the other buildings insomuch as it is a kind of total artwork, a narrative conceit that you can inhabit.
To rent ‘A House for Essex’ you need to enter a ballot with your preferred dates, hope that your luck is in, and then pay upfront. You are then sent a bunch of paperwork with a considerable list of rules, an inventory, and links to local sites. The house is on the edge of Wrabness, a village on the Stour estuary.
It is a kind of fairytale. Like a matryoshka doll, or a series of nesting tables, the structure fans out in a series of repeated shapes that grow in size. Both outside and inside are decorated by a series of tiles which depict details in the life of Julie Cope, the woman at the centre of the fictional narrative, which is the ostensible reason for the building’s existence.
‘A House for Essex’, we are asked to imagine, was built after Julie’s premature death (she was knocked down and killed by a motorbike courier delivering takeaway curry). It is a tribute by her husband Rob, sited a short distance away from their shared home. A kind of contemporary Taj Mahal, the house then is a love token, albeit by a man who never existed, for his fictional late wife. Apart from her unusual death, Julie Cope’s life is ordinary. Born in Essex in 1953 we learn that she fell into a relationship with Dave and for want of a better plan she became pregnant, giving birth first to Daniel and then to Elaine. Dave has an affair and the two split. Later she enters University as a mature student, meets and falls in love with Rob, and becomes a social worker.
While the narrative is radically unremarkable, the treatment is not. The house is a series of ‘reveals’. Hidden doorways in the tiled kitchen wall…
…lead through to a double-height chapel-like space.
The chandelier that hangs above the space is the bike that killed Julie. (It is also the mount for disguised CCTV cameras which are focussed on the artworks which are worth thousands. Fair enough.)
The room is full of Perry’s work and is, at the same time, an artwork in itself. The larger than life-size figure of Julie (as a kind of secular saint) dominates the space. There are also two large pots, the type for which Perry is perhaps most well-known, which also depict key moments in Julie’s story.
The narrative unfolds most literally in two large tapestries, which face each other. The first depicts Julie’s birth, childhood and young adulthood.
A narrative poem in the form of a booklet left on the kitchen table, presents the tale. You go between reading and looking. Details emerge. Julie is holding a bunch of flowers, presumably from an apologetic Rob. The card reads: ‘I am so sorry’.
The other tapestry depicts scenes from Julie’s later adulthood and her untimely death.
A map charts key locations in her life journey across Essex: Canvey Island, Basildon, South Woodham Ferrers, Maldon, Colchester, and Wrabness.
We also see her sprawled out, dying on the street in Colchester not long after having a drink (of Chenin blanc), the motorcycle courier beside her, her council lanyard tumbling to the front of the frame.
In the bedrooms two further murals dwarf the rooms; double portraits, first of Julie and Dave, probably on their wedding day.
It’s pretty incredible to get up so close to the artwork, and to wake up with it too.
I particularly enjoyed lingering my eye on the 2D representations of fabric. There’s some kind of weird duality when one textile depicts another.
In the other bedroom Julie is with Rob.
In a premonition of his sadness to come, Rob is crying. And you can study that tear for as long as you like.
Walking through the bedroom closet takes you out through a mirrored door onto the balconies in the main space.
There are several playful features: reveals, secrets, conundrums, that are never overly tricksy. One particularly enjoyable space is a mirrored corridor that is reminiscent of another home museum: Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln Inn’s Fields in London.
What is important to convey is that you are living in this space for as long as you have rented it. You do domestic things: cook, chat, play games, cuddle up, do a poo, have a bath. And the domesticity of your actions mirrors those of Julie’s ordinary life. Yet it is all presented in such a way that you slip in and out of the fiction and the celebration of the quotidian in all of us. It’s difficult not to celebrate when you are having a bath in this:
And stepping into the garden you are reminded of your own mortality. Somehow it manages not to be macabre.
Outside is Julie’s tomb. A fictional character, in a fictional grave.
And then you say goodbye to Julie and you say goodbye to ‘A House for Essex’. It is unlikely that I will ever stay there again. It is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of a thing. A magical journey into a building, inside a story, through the eyes of an artist, that puts the heart into the everyday.