Philippa Perry talks sex, surrealism and living with Grayson

The psychotherapist explains How to Be a Surrealist and what it's like being married to the newly crowned television presenter of the year

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A perfect imprint of Grayson Perry’s backside is marked out in flakes of croissant on the chair in front of me. “Sorry,” says Philippa Perry, 59, psychotherapist, author and presenter of this week’s BBC4 documentary How to be a Surrealist, as she brushes her husband’s seat clear.

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“Grayson is very messy.” The artist has already bolted his breakfast and gone, but the basement kitchen of the couple’s north London terrace bears his marks. The walls are covered with art, the floor scattered with crumbs and somewhere above us lurks the remarkable wardrobe of the nation’s best-known cross-dresser.

Adopting the alter ego Claire, the 56-year-old artist has gained as much attention for his public transvestism as for his remarkable Turner Prize-winning pots, though his wife claims his flamboyant other life has long ceased to register with her as a public work of art. “I’ve never known anything else,” says Philippa of the man she first met at a creative writing class in 1987. “I’ve been with him so long.”

I wonder if she really likes the life that her husband’s fame has brought. He is, after all, arguably Britain’s most recognisable artist, seen on television as regularly as he is snapped at gallery openings.

Days after we meet he is handed another accolade when he wins two RTS awards for Grayson Perry All Man, his Channel 4 series about masculinity.

“I don’t really feel any different,” says Philippa. “When we first got married, we were equals. Then he became famous, so now everybody comes up to him and goes, ‘I’d love to talk to you about that piece, blah blah blah’… I call it plus one syndrome.”

Does she find it annoying? “Actually, being with Grayson’s been quite helpful, because I do think of us as equals and so I think, ‘If he can do that, maybe I can do that.’ So that’s helpful. And of course him going, ‘You can do it, you’re cleverer than I am, do it,’ that’s helpful, too.”

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Spending 30 years with Grayson Perry means there’s little a man can do that surprises Philippa. But the author of How to Stay Sane feels many men could benefit from therapy – especially artistic men. “People are frightened of unpacking their misery, because they fear the creativity will dry up,” she says. “It won’t, because we [therapists] aren’t that good at making artists happy. How Grayson explains it is, before he went to psychotherapy, he had a shed from which he made art. After psychotherapy, it was a tidy shed and he could make much better art.”

Philippa’s profession and personal insight meant she was the obvious choice to front Kinky Sex Night on C4 last year. “It wasn’t very good, it got hijacked,” she says. “They kept punctuating it with models, not proper kinky people. That’s not what kinky people are like, they’ve got litter trays in the corner of their rooms.”

I’m mentally prepared for something kinky when she takes me upstairs to Grayson’s private office, but it turns out to be the most masculine room in Islington – cluttered with giant trainers and discarded flat caps.

“What’s wrong?” she asks. “Expecting dresses?” Well, yes, I was.

At least we can talk kinky. Philippa’s new documentary is about surrealism, the art movement founded in 1924 when the French poet André Breton released a Surrealist Manifesto calling for an art made, “in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern”.

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We all know surrealism’s scariest moment – a scalpel opening up a human eyeball in Luis Buñuel’s shocking 1928 film Un Chien Andalou (showing on Tuesday on BBC4 at 10.30pm). Likewise Salvador Dalí’s melting watches and the suburban Belgian surrealism of René Magritte’s bowler-hatted men floating over rooftops.

But why was so much surrealist art so oddly and uncomfortably sexual, like Magritte’s 1934 portrait Le Viol, where a woman’s eyes are replaced by breasts and her mouth with pubic hair? “Surrealism was about sex because it was 100 per cent about the unconscious,” says Philippa.

“People, especially young people with their biological urges, think about sex a lot. The surrealists wanted to share the unconscious, and your unconscious is not all butterflies and sunsets. I don’t think my fantasies would bear the scrutiny of whether they were politically correct or not. I can’t stop having dirty, politically incorrect dreams; they just come up in my head.”

In what way politically incorrect? “I might have killed people in my dreams. Or maybe the woman is in a submissive role. It doesn’t mean to say I’d want that to happen in real life…”

Philippa is anything but submissive in real life; her public role requires her to hold her own corner with major figures. “When I’ve met Boris Johnson at dinner parties, he shouts out, ‘Oh, Dr Freud’s here!’”

Does the foreign secretary get fresh after pudding? “He wouldn’t dare! I don’t think he cares for anyone but himself, but he’s jolly and funny and charismatic. Which covers all sins.”

That sounds like she would forgive most male transgressions if they were cheerfully delivered. “I do feel that we’re extra super-harsh on men. Even in the 1970s, actually, when I suffered from being groped in lifts in offices and stuff like that. I had a boss make a drunken pass at me once and my reaction was just to hit him on the nose, boof! There was blood everywhere. I gave him a tissue and said sorry.”

Did you escape into femininity, like your husband? “No, I went the other way. I’m heterosexual, but the way I dressed in the 70s and 80s, people now would think I was a lesbian. We wore ties with suits.”

Surrealists like Dalí took the opposite sartorial path. Long-haired and bejewelled, Dalí was as flamboyant then as Grayson Perry is today, and extended the fantastic transformation on to the objects around him – most famously a telephone morphing into a lobster and Mae West’s lips becoming a sofa.

Like Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, the surrealists saw dreams, and dream-like imagery, as a direct route to the subconscious. “They opened out their innermost thoughts, feelings and dreams and shared them,” says Perry.

Nearly a century later, their innermost thoughts and feelings can be troubling. “In the 1920s Breton and his colleagues suspended naked women above their meetings in Paris,” says Philippa, and the movement continued that way.

Le Viol actually translates as “The Rape”, and in 1938 André Masson put a gagged and naked female shop mannequin in a birdcage. There were exceptionally talented female surrealists, like Leonora Carrington and Lee Miller but, for the male surrealists, women were sexual totems. Not all women, though. “Breton’s wife [the painter Jacqueline Lamba] was very, very pretty, but you weren’t allowed to photograph her. That was one of his rules. He didn’t want anyone photographing his wife.”

Philippa seems surprisingly forgiving of the surrealists’ sexism. “That is the culture of men, to think that women are either goddesses or creatures, rather than people. And Breton later did a 180-degree turnaround. He said, ‘We treated women very badly, the way we looked at women was very bad, women are as clever if not cleverer than men, we just did not know that in our youthful ignorance.’”

It’s less easy to accept some of surrealism’s darker moments, such as the implications of paedophilia in Hans Bellmer’s fetishised photographs of pubescent female dolls in the 1930s. “I think because Bellmer showed that part of himself, and was aware of that part of himself, he was probably less likely to act on it. Those things might be disturbing, they might look very violent and sexualised, but they’re not sexy. They’re not ‘porny’. They are worrying, they’re disturbing, but they’re really not porny. I think the Chapman brothers are porny.”

Artists Jake and Dinos Chapman’s skits on porn have included putting penises on mannequins of children. “One of the Chapmans kicked my daughter [Florence] when Grayson won the Turner Prize,” Philippa says. “She was 11. A genuine kick. It didn’t hurt, but it was a kick and she went ‘Heeey!’”

Social functions can be testing in other ways when you are married to Grayson Perry. “I can be really enjoying myself and somebody comes up, interrupts and says, ‘Do you think it would be all right if I spoke to your husband?’ I go, ‘Well, it’s not all right to interrupt me, but it’s probably fine to do it to him.’ Why am I OK to interrupt but they’re not? It drives me up the pole. When I meet a couple and one of them is famous, I sort of see a halo, like an energy, which is what I’m projecting onto them, of the famous person. I think, ‘Put that to one side and make friends with the other person.’ So I consciously do that.

“Sometimes we’ve become very good friends as a foursome and I think, ‘My God, there’s so much more to her than there is to him.’ I’m thinking of a particular couple I know. I can’t tell you who it is with the tape recorder on. But if you promise not to tell…” I turn it off and she tells.

Before I brush the crumbs from my trousers and leave I ask her if any of the surrealists’ work is likely to survive the passage of time. “Oh, definitely: Max Ernst, Magritte. And the Dalís, though I don’t like looking at them, were technically very brilliant paintings.”

But it’s not the actual paintings that matter so much, as the way the surrealists changed the way we lived as artists and as people. “The surrealists might have suspended a woman from the ceiling, but they changed the direction of art history,” says Philippa. In the Perry household, that’s an on-going ambition.

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How to Be a Surrealist with Philippa Perry is on Tuesday 9:00pm BBC4