In the English hamlet of Wrabness, architects FAT and artist Grayson Perry conspire to create an ornatelyeclectic House for Essex
Say what you like about Grayson Perry, but he does have good legs, currently shown off to exquisite advantage in purple tights, the sartorial choice of Julie May Cope. Julie is Perry’s latest and most personal muse who catalyses and spectrally inhabits the House for Essex, a modern pilgrimage chapel on the bucolic Stour estuary obsessively dedicated to her memory. Posing in publicity shots beside its architect Charles Holland, one of FAT’s merry pranksters, Julie cuts a bohemian dash with her bobbed barnet and symphonic wardrobe, part Glenda Jackson from Women in Love, part groovy ’70s art teacher.
We need to talk about Julie, as without her there would be no House for Essex, no Taj on the Stour at the ecstatic culmination of her pilgrimage trail, and no picking over what place very clever, charming vanity projects by very clever, charming provocateurs have in the nation’s currently rather glum collective life. Julie, Perry’s fabulous Essex Everywoman, is the purple thread that runs through a richly confected tapestry of allusion, craft and storytelling, a life imagined, concretised and ultimately made manifest in architecture for the delectation of the masses. Or perhaps more accurately a certain subset of the masses, as the cost of a three-night stay chez Essex ranges from £750 to £1,800, though you can venerate it without charge from the adjacent public footpaths. Julie’s bijou mausoleum sleeps four accommodated in two bedrooms, each adorned with intricately worked tapestries depicting her marriages in youth and age, superscale tableaux to rival Pope Leo’s hiring of Raphael to zhush up the Sistine Chapel.
‘Julie is the thread that runs through a richly confected tapestry of allusion and storytelling’
In this latter-day scenario, Pope Leo is played by Alain de Botton, pop philosopher and patron of the arts who founded Living Architecture in order to stealthily populate the countryside with starchitect-designed holiday homes, a kind of achingly contemporary version of the Landmark Trust. To date, Pope Alan’s stellar roster has featured MVRDV, Nord, John Pawson and, most eagerly anticipated of all, Peter Zumthor, who is working with teasing glacial slowness on a rammed concrete dwelling in south Devon.
The matter of hitching FAT to Grayson Perry proved quicker and simpler, and it seems a happy marriage, with FAT tempering the more febrile Game of Thrones excesses of Perry’s early sketches with a less visceral, more playful formal and material sensibility that still manages to conjure a vision of the Arts and Crafts on crystal meth. Both Perry and Charles Holland are Essex boys, and underpinning the inevitable intellectualisation of their union there is an affecting sense that this is a collective billet-doux to a county and its people, especially its women, who are consistently and unfairly maligned in popular imagination.
But back to Julie, who was born in a loft on Canvey Island during the apocalyptic winter floods of 1953. ‘The North Sea pulsing darkly up the stairs’, as Perry eulogises in The Ballad of Julie Cope, a Larkin-esque poetic narrative charting our heroine’s journey across the geographical and social span of Essex. In an arc of emancipation and self-actualisation she moves progressively north-eastwards from Canvey Island to the ‘modern air’ of Basildon ‘all architects’ dreams and improving lines’, then on to South Woodham Ferrers and ‘a mortgage on a tick-box starter home’ with first husband Dave who plays lead guitar in The Riders of Rohan and owns an orange Capri.
Two children and one divorce later we find her in Maldon, in ‘a workers’ terrace lined with liberal types’, finally free to be herself ‘between a corduroy lecturer on film and a dangly earringed potter’. Here she meets and marries Rob, an IT lecturer, and they advance to a ‘wonky Georgian house’ in Colchester and keep a weekend place in Wrabness, a pinprick hamlet on the northernmost extremity of Essex.
Nirvana finally attained, Julie meets an abrupt and untimely demise at the hands of a curry delivery driver pelting to an assignation on his moped. Bereft, Rob ‘grieves as deep as Shah Jahan’ and builds his Taj Mahal on the Stour for her on the site of their weekend house, with Suffolk and the ballet mécanique of container port cranes in the distance. The spot where he was standing when the police arrived to break the news of her death is marked by a skull mosaic, and Julie’s ‘tomb’ inscribed with her dates lies at a discreet remove from the micro Taj.
Expressed through games of scale and lashings of ornament, the duality between the domestic and the devotional drives the architecture. Conceived as a quartet of archetypal house-shaped sections, the building telescopes along its length, like a nest of tables or Russian dolls, stepping up in height from the compact, vestry-like entrance hall at one end, to the set-piece ‘chapel’ that constitutes the living quarters at the other.
‘It has a formal sensibility that still manages to conjure a vision of the Arts and Crafts on crystal meth’
‘The aggregation of elements refers to stave churches’, says Holland ‘although the rich colours and intense decoration suggest something more exotic, a Thai temple perhaps.’ With its crazed Battenberg chequering of green and cream tiles, symbolically imprinted with emblems of Julie’s life, red dormer windows, weathervanes like giant tchotchkes and blinging gold roof (actually copper alloy), it does have the kitsch, otherworldly aura of a gingerbread house wrenched and repurposed from the disturbing imagination of the Brothers Grimm. And though obvious, the baking analogy is also appropriate as the construction is essentially a basic sponge of blockwork iced and pimped with delirious abandon. This makes it sound laughably simple, yet there is evident skill in how the complex geometries of the curved dormer windows and angular roof are finessed within the building’s telescopic armature.
Inside the armature nothing is quite as it seems, with the domestic and devotional as conjoined but distinct sub-realms. ‘The house is independent of the chapel and vice versa’, says Holland, ‘as if you could stay in one without ever realising that the other was there.’ Space is contorted, compressed and contradicted through Soanian mirrors, hidden doors and blocked vistas. Into a stew of influences, Holland flings Lutyens, Loos and Lord Leighton, filtered through the prism of an abstract Pop sensibility. The sleight of hand culminates in the yawning, timber-lined volume of the chapel, its rustic folk-art sensibility overlaid with elements of English baroque, notably in a theatrical internal screen animated by a curvaceously suggestive pair of minstrels’ galleries. From the bedrooms you can pop out on to the galleries like a clockwork weatherman to survey goings on and admire Perry’s pièce de résistance, a towering ceramic effigy of Julie in her apotheosis, resplendent on the chapel’s blood-red high altar.
Anyone who has set foot in a Catholic church or the Vatican’s groaning souvenir shop will know how the lives of the saints are determinedly memorialised in a blizzard of keepsake tat. Played out as a fanatically choreographed secular canonisation, the House for Essex is a likewise intoxicating gesamtkunstwerk of Julie tapestries, Julie sculptures, Julie wallpaper, her favourite drinks, even her book collection, and finally the Honda C90 moped, the instrument of her modern martyrdom suspended from the chapel roof in a deus-ex-machina flourish. Within and without, she is omnipresent, perhaps most insistently in the green wall tiles depicting her as a rotund Sheela-na-gig with delicately Pointillist nipples (which kept dropping off during fabrication).
That the architecture is capable of absorbing and processing such an intense sensory overload suggests that the collaboration was genuinely reciprocal, activating the artist in the architect and vice versa. Equally importantly, it does not appear to be deterring paying customers; quite the opposite in fact, with places having to be allocated by ballot. Our Lady of Essex is clearly a growing cult with many eager acolytes. However it’s not just Julie who is immortalised here. This is also FAT’s last hurrah, as the capering collective disbands after nearly 25 years. Given that most firms tend to segue from gutsy provocation to smug conformism, you have to admire the nerve it takes to strip it all down and start again, and House for Essex makes a fittingly raunchy valediction. RIP, Fashion Architecture Taste
A house for Essex
Architect: Charles Holland of FAT Architecture
Artist: Grayson Perry
Terracotta tiles: Shaws of Darwen
Photographs: Jack Hobhouse and Katie Hyams