The Royal Society of Literature, a Grayson Perry Self-Portrait, and a Jane Austen Fundraising Auction

Last week, Art Today were proud to be asked to publicise Grayson Perry’s contribution to the Royal Society of Literature’s latest Fundraising Auction. We caught up with RSL Director Tim Robertson to find out how the lot faired…

A Self-Portrait by Grayson Perry dressed as Jane Austen. Contributed as a lot in the Royal Society of Literature's Fundraising Auction.

A Self-Portrait by Grayson Perry (dressed as Jane Austen). Contributed as a lot in the Royal Society of Literature’s Fundraising Auction this week.

This week, Art Today was delighted to be asked to publicise the latest Fundraising Auction for and by the Royal Society of Literature, and, in particular, a lot contributed by 2003 Turner Prize WinnerGrayson Perry CBE.

We caught up with RSL Director, Tim Robertson, to find out how the auction went and the background behind Grayson Perry’s Self-Portrait…

The fundraising itself was instigated for 2 reasons.  As a national body responsible under Royal Charter for the ‘advancement of literature’ in the UK, the RSL wishes to undertake charitable projects that:-

Considering the RSL’s own research also demonstrated that Jane Austen sits in the Top 5 Authors Most Recognised by the Public – and knowing that cross-dressing Grayson Perry is known for reaching out to minorities and the oppressed – Tim and his fellow movers and shakers decided an auction in her name (during her 200th anniversary) with a contribution by Grayson would grab required attention – and funds for literature’s lost readers.

It was Tim himself who asked Grayson for his help.  The 2 distinguished creatives have known each other since working on the same philanthropic enterprise some years ago.  The Koestler Trust is an arts awards scheme for offenders, secure patients and detainees.  Tim was its CEO and he and Grayson worked for the trust together, developing a rapport.  It seemed only natural for Tim to request an artistic contribution for the auction from his friend.  He commented that both Grayson and Jane Austen have the same ‘sharp and incisive’ sense of humour, demonstrating the same insouciant take on class and politics.

He mused that Grayson’s drawing – entitled ‘Portrait of the Artist as Jane Austen’ – typifies his artistic style.  Encapsulating ‘camp fun’ and ‘bright colours’, as well as being ‘over-the-top’.  Commenting on the regency mansion in the picture, Tim said it was as if it served to illustrate by acknowledgement the stark difference between the modern world and Austen’s own imposed, starchy existence.  By both legislation and convention, it would not have been permitted for a cross-dressing man dressed boldly in lurid and exaggerated women’s clothing, to stand out in the street for all to see.

Grayson’s admiration for Jane Austen was publicly display when in 2014 his ‘Comfort Blanket’ went on view at the National Portrait Gallery in the ‘Grayson Perry: Who Are You?’ exhibition.  Amongst other national treasures (such as fish and chips, the Magna Carta and David Bowie) woven together in the blanket, Jane Austen was featured flanked by Margaret Thatcher and the Rolling Stones.  The delicious randomness evoked by such a placement is immediately followed by “And why not?” – a question frequently found on the lips of Perry enthusiasts.

Grayson Perry pictured with his piece entitled 'Comfort Blanket' at the 'Grayson Perry: Who are you?' exhibition, National Portrait Gallery, 2014.

Grayson Perry pictured with his piece entitled ‘Comfort Blanket’ at the ‘Grayson Perry: Who are you?’ exhibition, National Portrait Gallery, 2014.  His book entitled ‘Playing to the Gallery: Helping Contemporary Art in its Struggle to be Understood’*** was published the same year.

Grayson is even quoted as saying that Austen is the ‘Patron Saint of Book Groups’, revealing both fondness and respect for the author’s 21st-Century popularity.

So, how are the Royal Society of Literature planning to close the 20% void in Great British literature’s relevance and appeal?

Tim Robertson was enthused and energised when speaking of the society’s already-generous efforts to address the issue.  A considerable Schools Outreach Programme has been set up to get great writers speaking to children in ‘challenging’** secondary schools.  Between 10 and 15 visits are organised per year, with such scions as Tom Stoppard, Lord Melvyn Bragg and Sebastian Faulks motivating young students to read by revealing their own relatable backstories.  As Michael Morpurgo – another outreach lecturer – observed:

“If you can get kids reading early, and they have at least one supportive parent, no matter what their ethnicity or social class they are off to a good start. I believe that passionately.”.

Grayson dressed as 'Claire', his cross-dressing persona and alter ego.

Grayson dressed as ‘Claire’, his cross-dressing persona and alter ego.

The fundraising from the auction will go towards such a worthy cause.

It seems such a positive and fitting sign that Grayson Perry’s self-portrait achieved the highest price in the private auction, last Tuesday.  Tim considers him to be a great and relevant ‘ambassador’ for those needing a helping hand to be recognised by society, humanity and the arts.

Art Today Magazine sincerely wishes the RSL every success in the future with their charitable outreach efforts.

Keep up-to-date with details of the Jane Austen Bicentenary celebrations on Twitter [#JaneAusten200], and with RSL’s Jane Austen commemorations on their website [].

* ‘Literature in Britain Today’ published 1 March 2017, carried out by Ipsos MORI.  [].

** ‘Challenging’ refers to schools in which more than 50 per cent of pupils are considered deprived according to the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI) or in which GCSE results fall in the lowest third of the national distribution.

***Playing to the Gallery: Helping Contemporary Art in its Struggle to be Understood‘ by Grayson Perry can be purchased from for £5.99 (paperback).

[Credits: Tim Robertson, Director of the Royal Society of Literature;;;]

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