A House for Essex: Grayson Perry’s Living Architecture


Amongst the thriving architectural landscape of Essex, few properties have attracted as much attention lately as A House For Essex. Designed by the artist Grayson Perry, in cooperation with FAT Architecture, this chapel-for-rent, based on the life of fictional saint, Julie Cope. After almost five years in design and production, the property has opened for visitors multiple times over the past few years, offering a unique look at the evolution of architectural and artistic styles throughout Essex.

This combination between architecture and artwork has been designed, like the other works involving fictional character Julie Cope, to be evocative of the folk religious iconography of England and, in particular, Essex. With the imagery of pilgrimages and a combination between the device and the home-y, A House For Essex is both an immersive arts experience and livable property in its own right.

In place and out of time

Capturing the character of English religious iconography and of Essex country life seems to be contradictory given their eccentric combination in A House For Essex. From afar, it may be easy to mistake it for any other rural chapel or cottage. The closer you get to it, however, the clearer its kitschier qualities become. The triangular green-on-white exterior walls combined with bright red doors makes it look more like a novelty teapot blown up large, while the mish-mash of pitched-roof elements almost looks like chaos above.

Yet, that impression from afar is powerful. Painted from a distance, it might cast a silhouette over the River Stour that’s entirely belonging to Essex, standing on a sloping green hill that looks perfect for relaxing and watching the countryside beneath you.

Perry’s Essex architecture

Like many of Grayson Perry’s works, it can be hard to tell at a glance how much is authentic and how much is tongue-in-cheek irony. Indeed, some may find the repeated bas-relief of a kneeling naked figure all across the exterior to be garish, while others might see it as a reminder of the importance of the archetypal mother to British religion over the centuries.

Similarly, the various-church inspired roof elements each have some ability to evoke on their own, to remind visitors of chapels seen in the past, and of feelings of religiosity that they might inspire. Yet, the combination removes them from that context, making it feel meaningful and meaningless at the same time.

A contradictory tale of the divine and secular

The spiritual inspiration behind the design of A House For Essex is clear. So to is the story of the fictional Julie Cope. As it goes, she is a representation of Essex, or what Grayson Perry considers to be Essex. A woman born in the great floods of 1953, who migrated from place to place in the county, as well as moving from one marriage to the next. The climax of Julie’s story is nothing more grand than a dream holiday to India, before being hit by a takeaway delivery moped in Essex, with A House For Essex being her late husband, Rob, making his attempt at a Taj Mahal, as he had promised her.

It’s a story that’s mundane, even carrying some bitter humour, yet genuine in its emotion. It’s also both fictional and framed as the story of a “saint”. However, she’s not a saint ordained by any deity or church, but the every-woman of Essex, the archetypal mother, wife, and thinking, breathing soul who lives the life expected of her, before a redemptive story of getting back into education, travelling, and fulfilling herself.

Julie’s story clearly matches the design of the home. So much of it is intentionally designed to look religious, to feel spiritual, and to evoke the real feelings one might have of chapels visited before. However, the “chapel” is entirely bereft of religious iconography.

Rather, the pregnant woman featured in the relief is Julie Cope herself, while chapters from her life are depicted through tapestries, through wallpapers, and through ceramic, in a statue of her taking center stage in the living room.

Challenging perceptions of modern architecture and decor

Charles Holland, lead designer with FAT Architecture, grew up in Essex like Grayson Perry, and so was well equipped to make the property truly A House for Essex. However, in doing so, the pair challenged just about every rule in architecture and decor both.

A single look at the exterior’s layered roofs of different styles shows one of the challenges at a glance. Indoors, the drastically varying interiors from room to room, the colour palette that strikes a clear contract against the peacefully monotone Essex countryside, and the eclectic placement of narrative and artistic pieces all throughout the home make it a place that can be hard to feel at peace in, to begin with.

Yet, much of the design is meant to capture what is considered most comforting and familiar about Essex life, as well. A large sunken bath bathed in the sunlight of a misted window overlooking the sloping countryside. Views across the river from each bedroom. An intimate kitchen and dining area with a wood burner and fireplace.

A unique opportunity to stay in Essex

A House for Essex may seem like it was created to be little more than an art piece to be admired, and part of Grayson’s ongoing narrative with the character of Julie Cope. However, since it has been finalised, it has been opened multiple times, offering some lucky guests the opportunity to stay in the house, to explore its hidden doors and subtle design choices, and to experience the story of Julie Cope with a narrative that could only be expressed through this unique mix of architecture and art

A unique addition that clearly stands out amongst the local village of Wrabness, A House for Essex is an hour’s train ride away from London, and invites constant curiosity and speculation. Well worth taking the opportunity to get a closer look should it arise.

Read about our work in Essex

Image Credit © Jack Hobhouse

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