I have climbed Christmas Steps, skirted round Zed Alley, and passed by the Synagogue to make my way from the coach station to Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, in Clifton. The building was designed in Edwardian Baroque style by Frederick Wills, and largely funded at its inception by his cousin, the tobacco baron Sir William Henry Wills. I am here to see Grayson Perry’s admirable exhibition, “The Vanity of Small Differences “. (It is Perry who is co-ordinating the Royal Academy’s 250th Summer Exhibition this year.)
Today the University of Bristol is holding an Open Day, and prospective students and their sponsors are swarming around the Wills Memorial Building next door. The particular Wills whom this building, with its 65m high Gothic Revival Tower, commemorates is the University’s first Chancellor, Henry Overton III. He entered the family firm of W.D. and H.O. Wills in 1846, but retired from active association with it in 1880, owing to poor health.
In 2017, student protesters called for the building to be renamed “after an individual that we…can be proud of”. Although slavery was outlawed in Britain in 1833, slaves were still being used to produce US tobacco in 1846. As commentators have pointed out, however, it’s hard to find historic Bristolians who weren’t connected to the slave trade.
In 2014, Grayson Perry RA wrote in “The rise and fall of Default Man”: “….I feel that by coming from a working class background and being an artist and transvestite, I have enough cultural distance from the towers of power. I have space to turn round and get a fairly good look at the edifice.” He writes of the “forest of huge totems….Great shiny monoliths in various phallic shapes…” of the City of London. And one of the first psychoanalysts in the US, A.A. Brill, vouchsafed to Edward Bernays for a very large fee that cigarettes were a symbol of the penis. Bernays was a nephew by marriage of Sigmund Freud, and invented the term “public relations “.
The six large tapestries which compose “The Vanity of Small Differences ” are inspired by Hogarth’s morality tale, “A Rake’s Progress”. Before we leave the subject of towers, let us recall that William Hogarth named his favourite pug Trump.