Lunch with the FT: Grayson Perry
'There is too much slapdashery in art'
A man who dresses as a woman; a conceptual artist 'masquerading' as a potter: Turner Prize-winning Grayson Perry is not easy to pin down.

Sitting at a window table in Clerkenwell's trendy Moro restaurant, I am looking out for my lunch companion, the artist Grayson Perry. I am expecting him in jeans and a jumper. As an art-world insider warned me, in a consolatory tone: "He will probably just come as Grayson. He only comes as Claire for special occasions."

Perry has made his name as one of Britain's leading contemporary artists. His beautiful hand-made pots are embellished with disturbing or cheeky imagery. But he is also known for his transvestism; he famously collected the Turner Prize he was awarded in 2003 dressed as "Claire", his girlish alter ego.

So my first reaction when I see Claire striding towards me is to feel flattered: Grayson Perry has come as Claire especially for the Financial Times. And, he is wearing various shades of pink - how fitting.

Perry, who is 48, looks rather like a grown-up Alice in Wonderland. After we shake hands, he hangs up his fabulously voluminous quilted coat, to reveal a cerise tartan jacket, over a tulip-skirted dress. His shaggy hair has been back-brushed and blow-dried into a mini-beehive. He is immaculately made-up with crimson sweetheart lips, pink eyelids and plenty of mascara and rouge (and I suspect a lot of foundation to cover the morning's shave).

I tell him he looks lovely, which seems the only appropriate opener, and he accepts the compliment coolly. The outfit was custom-made for him by students at St Martin's School of Art, he explains, where he teaches a textile course. Noticing that there is an aerial map pattern on the coat (Perry has recently produced some large-scale prints, such as "Map of an Englishman", a sort of ordnance survey of the brain), I ask him if he had specified the kind of thing he would like. "Oh, totally," he says in his deep voice - wonderfully incongruous with his get-up - and points to a discreet vagina design on his dress (genitalia is a common motif in his work). "I looked in my wardrobe to see where the gaps are and I said to them 'I haven't got much for winter lunch dates'."

And is it all made to measure? "I spend the whole day in my underpants, wandering from student to student, being fitted out," he says in the wry tone that appears throughout our lunch. Perry seems a good deal more relaxed than I am. The other diners look like a mix of cool Guardian employees (Moro is around the corner from the newspaper's offices) and Guardian readers (Perry included). Right-on perhaps, but they are nonetheless starting to stare. I asked what had made Perry decide to come as Claire today? He wolfs down a hunk of bread, and says breezily that he'd looked at his watch after the gym this morning and realised he had time to, that's all. Plus, he explains, he is going directly to a meeting afterwards, where he is on the panel of judges to decide on this year's Fourth Plinth - the annual temporary sculpture commission for the "empty" column in London's Trafalgar Square.

That Perry should be a judge for a competition to decide on a major public work of art is not surprising. Since he won the Turner he has been in demand for TV show appearances and discussion panels. A cross-dresser who is extremely articulate about today's cultural issues, and who makes some of the most exquisitely crafted pots and other objects of our time, has clearly proved quite a draw.

I ask if he has to ration his time these days? Perry replies that before saying yes he checks with his wife Philippa, his "gatekeeper". "She sees how I can let myself be diluted," he says. "And I am getting fussier; I don't want to be ubiquitous."

One of Perry's most notable recent appearances as a cultural voice was on Radio 4's Thinking Allowed in February with critic Richard Sennett, whose book The Craftsman chimed with Perry's own belief in the need to favour craft over "the idea", the concept behind most contemporary works of art.

We decide on our two courses quickly - chargrilled squid for both of us to start with, then sea bream for him and lamb for me - and Perry launches into an impassioned discourse on our responsibility to hand down skills to future generations and the importance of taking pride in the execution of a work of art. "There is too much slap-dashery in contemporary art," he says. "It's as if it is enough to knock up some sort of stage set that basically illustrates 'the idea'." To Perry, "the idea" is an odious, puffed-up term. It suggests quickly digested, quickly forgotten sound bites, quite at odds with his slow, careful creations that require slow, careful consideration. I ask him if he feels that there are any other contemporary artists who exhibit the sort of technical mastery he admires in the work of Grunewald or Brueghel? He cites the Chapman Brothers, who clearly share Perry's neo-medieval horror vacui - the artist's fear of leaving areas of work blank or unadorned. "They are amazing craftsmen. But they do still believe in that kind of naughty teenager scenario, which can be a bit tiresome."

Our chargrilled squid with harissa arrives. "I'm not much of a foodie," says Perry, who grew up in Essex and whose troubled upbringing is told in a frank memoir Grayson Perry: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl (2006). "But, I do like eating out in nice restaurants," he affirms with a little cackle. Perry decorates his pots with themes that are free-ranging and often uncomfortable: childhood, tranvestism, strange eastern European fables and zeitgeisty issues. The titles are essential, as they instruct the viewer how the subject matter should be viewed. For example, a deep blue vase with stylish men and women drawn on it is labelled "Boring Cool People": the edginess elevating the ornament from the realm of "ceramics" and into that of contemporary art. This is an important distinction for Perry, who explains he walks a tight-rope between the two categories, always attempting to find a balance between his desire both for craft and meaning. "I'm quite an intellectual artist," he admits. "I'm a conceptual artist masquerading as a potter."

Whether they are viewed as ceramics or contemporary works of art, Perry's pots fetch thousands of pounds. Will the economic downturn affect him? No, he explains, he only really needs half a dozen wealthy people to buy a pot each year and, besides, he only makes about 10-15 every year as each one takes so long. He tells me his pots are selling well in Europe and America, and that he had a good reception in Japan.

Perry says he has seen photographs on the internet of his pots being used as vases, filled with daffodils, which clearly horrifies him. So where would he most like to see one of his pots? "In the Met Museum in New York, I think," he says self-assuredly. "I would prefer that to private collectors' galleries," he adds. "The museum has the long-term view. They decide what goes down as important culturally." This seems to be a concern for Perry, and I ask whether the durability of his pots is an important aspect. If they aren't broken they will last forever, he tells me, more than can be said for a lot of contemporary art. "Any art that uses technology is going to date horribly. Anything that requires a plug . . . " he tails off with a disapproving look. Aside from prints and pots, Perry has also curated two exhibitions. Straddling the wobbly line between art and artefact in his own work, he was the ideal candidate to bring together a show that combined both categories. For The Charms of Lincolnshire (2006), Perry was given carte blanche to select from the social history and fine art departments of The Collection in Lincoln, the city's museum of art and archaeology, and asked to produce some of his own responses to the work. (Cue some tongue-in-cheek but also strangely haunting sepia photographs of the artist in period dresses.)

Perry has also curated a touring exhibition for the Arts Council, entitled Unpopular Culture , which will open on May 10 at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea. He was invited to browse the council's collection of several thousand works and select 80 that he felt excited about. In the end, he tells me, he was drawn to the collection's "early stuff" from the 1950s, characterised by a quiet conservatism that would be considered anathema in today's art world of extremes.

That period of art, Perry tells me, was "between the two bombardments: the bombardment of the Nazis and the bombardment of the media. Between Hitler and Thatcher, basically." It was a time when Britain was more civic, and when class divisions were more marked: the working classes were the subjects of the paintings and the middle classes went to the galleries to see them.

Perry suddenly lifts a small pink handbag I hadn't noticed before on to the table and fishes out a digital camera. At this point, I have all but forgotten that I am talking to a man dressed as a woman; the handbag is an unsettling reminder. He shows me a photo of a sculpture of a giant barnacled skull that he has made for the show. Perry seems excited as he zooms in to show me the detail. "It's encrusted with British stuff - such as bulldogs and the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, and the England football logo," he points out. "It's a really British object - a talisman of our national identity. I'm really pleased with it."

So far, so boyish. His other contribution to the show however, a bright yellow and pink headscarf, is more Claire than Grayson. Folded, it seems Hermes-esque, but once swooshed out, it is unarguably Perry-esque: in the middle is a drawn portrait of Claire holding on to a large bunch of balloons. Perry checks his watch and realises he must dash for the plinth meeting. I ask how he will get there. "I'll take a bus," he says. "No one gives me much bother."

"Excuse me," says a neighbouring female diner, as Perry wraps himself up ready to leave. "I do love your coat." "Thank you," Perry says graciously. He then shakes my hand firmly and slips out of the door, where he is approached by another woman, presumably also commenting on his coat.

Somehow I feel that Perry gets more bother when he is dressed up as Claire than he makes out, but that, actually, it's no bother at all.

"Unpopular Culture : Grayson Perry selects from the Arts Council Collection" opens on May 10 at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea until July 6. The exhibition will then tour the UK until 2010.