Difficult Background – Grayson Perry

Fig. 1. Perry, Grayson. “Difficult Background” (2001) – two views

Fig. 2. My sketches – Top left sketch of a girl, top right sketch of a boy, below are some observations about the pot


The Brighton Museum and Gallery has a Grayson Perry pot, Difficult Background (2001), on permanent display.

I wish to discuss it for two reasons. Firstly, I like Grayson Perry’s work in general and this pot in particular. Secondly, I was struck with how the pot was described.

The pot is in its own cabinet and sits in a corner. It is, however, on a revolving plate which allows all aspects of the pot to be seen. On both of my recent visits to look at it, however, the revolving plate wasn’t working. This had the effect of hiding about one fifth of it.

The cabinet carries a description of the pot. It says:

“Difficult Background, 2001, appears to refer nostalgically to childhood, with figures of children playing, dressed in 1950s-style clothes. However, a closer look reveals scrawled images of terror and war: burning buildings, blasted trees, naked figures running screaming from others carrying rifles. A girl presents an apple to a boy over a fallen signpost labelled ‘lost innocence’. Perry thus makes a powerful statement about the atrocities of conflict.”

I would agree with all of that but I was surprised that the description did not pick up on another aspect of the work. I will, therefore, discuss the piece in a little more detail and then return to the above description and consider other interpretations.

The Pot

The neck and upper quarter of the pot is a salmon colour. The lower three-quarters is brown. As the museum’s description explains, the pot is covered with pale blue images of children, whilst behind them are images of terror and war.

The children in the foreground are certainly dressed in 1950s-style clothes. More important, however, is what they are doing; they are conforming to stereotypes. The girls are holding; a rabbit, a kitten, a toy zebra, a doll and a basket of flowers. One boy is dressed as a cowboy whilst sitting on a wooden horse, two boys are playing with a train and a toy soldier respectively and another boy is talking to a girl.

The background also demands closer inspection. A building is on fire. The fire is yellow and is a striking feature of the pot. Soldiers and military aircraft are visible. A closer inspection of the pot reveals an image of a naked figure running screaming. The figure is female and reminiscent of Nick Ut’s iconic Vietnam image, “The Terror of War” below:

 South Vietnamese forces follow after terrified children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc (center) as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places on June 8, 1972.

Fig. 3. Ut, Nick. “The Terror of War” (1972) (The naked girl running in the middle is Kim Phuc and she was just nine years old when this photograph was taken.)

It is important to note that Perry has only referenced the naked girl in his image. There is also another image of a woman which is unclear. She appears to be naked, gagged and bound.


I certainly accept that one aspect of this work is the “…atrocities of conflict” as mentioned in the cabinet description above. It is, however, interesting to read what Perry had to say about men in his book, The Descent of Man (2016:3). “Men seem to be the ones with the power, the money, the guns, and the criminal records. The consequences of rogue masculinity are, I think, one of the biggest issues, if not the biggest issue, facing the world today.”

There are various symbols in this work. The children are lightly coloured whilst the background occupied by adults at war is dark. The boys and girls are conforming to stereotypes. Is Perry asking us to consider what the consequences are of this stereotyping of children?     

The title of this work is Difficult Background. The pot presents a literal expression of the title, given the hideous events unfolding in the background to the children’s innocent play. Is he also asking us to consider that the “difficult background” is the way our society brings up our children? Does he want us to recognise that war and atrocity will be committed, in general, by adult men?

He may also be pointing us to his own difficult background. In The Descent of Man (2016:6) he explains that he “…did not have good role models.” His father left when he was four years old. His stepfather was “…a volatile and violent man…” of whom he “…was terrified.”

I think this work deserves far more consideration than was given in the description on its cabinet.

List of illustrations

Figure 1. Perry, G. (2001)  Difficult background. (Left hand image) At: https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/482659285037030540/ (Accessed on 23 April 2017)

Figure 1. Perry, G. (2001)  Difficult background.(Right hand image) At: http://brightonmuseums.org.uk/brighton/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2015/02/da301466_d01.jpg (Accessed on 23 April 2017)

Figure 3. Ut, N. The Terror of War (1972) At: http://time.com/3841060/iconic-vietnam-war-photos/ (Accessed on 23 April 2017)


Perry, G. The Descent of Man (2016) London: Allen Lane


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