Grayson Perry has become the first British visual artist since Henry Moore in 1968 to win the prestigious and lucrative Erasmus prize.
The award is a Dutch version of the Nobel prize, given annually to a person or institution that has made “an exceptional contribution to the humanities, the social sciences or the arts.” It comes with €150,000 prize money and a large titanium-plated ribbon adornment bearing text by Erasmus.
“I always love a medal,” admitted Perry, wearing blisteringly vivid pink at the announcement of his award in London. “I’ll probably design an outfit to match.”
The formal prize-giving will be in the royal palace of Amsterdam by King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands in November.
Perry said he was “overwhelmed and honoured and humbled really” to be given the prize, particularly given the impressive roster of British winners, who include Charlie Chaplin (1965), Ninette de Valois (1974), Isiaiah Berlin (1983) and AS Byatt (2016). “Of course my imposter syndrome kicks in massively at this point.”
The theme of the prize this year was the “the power of the image in the digital era”. Judges said: “At a time when we are constantly bombarded with images, Perry has developed a unique visual language demonstrating that art belongs to everybody and should not be an elitist affair.”
Perry said he was moved to receive the prize. “It feels like a validation of something that has crept up on me over the years, which is that my career is about making difficult ideas accessible.”
His recent work, including pots, television and stage shows, has often felt like a cultural soundtrack to the Brexit debates and he acknowledged he had done very well out of the subject.
“I have been fascinated by the socio-political fallout from that very simple question and for me, as a kind of amateur socio-anthropologist, what Brexit has shown me about my country has been fascinating, appalling and delightful all at the same time.”
That said, Shanti van Dam, the director of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation, insisted Perry’s victory had nothing to do with Brexit.
The Erasmus prize was founded by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands in 1958 at a time of hope and optimism about a new united Europe, and the first winners were the people of Austria.
It is considered one of Europe’s most distinguished prizes and is awarded for a lifetime’s work rather than a specific work or achievement. Last year’s winner was the American composer John Adams. Judges said the breadth of Perry’s work was particularly noteworthy.
Perry is an artist who is gleefully anti-establishment yet works in the establishment of the art market and has received honours (a CBE) and prizes, including the Turner in 2003 and a Bafta in 2013. Was there a not a problematic contradiction, he was asked. “I can handle two contradictory ideas in my head at the same time, I’m a qualified adult,” Perry said. “I’m a very pragmatic person. As some politicians need to learn, you need to make compromises.”
Perry said in many ways he was “a completely reconstructed traditionalist” but he liked always to do new things. “I’m learning new things even now for my next projects. My great overall skill is spontaneity and winging it.”