The Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry talking recently about Who Are You?, his display of new works at the National Portrait Gallery in London, commented that, “identity is one of those words that gets used a lot particularly in political terms and it always seems a slippery term to me". 

In this diverse collection of 14 portraits shown in the Gallery's nineteenth and twentieth century rooms Perry uses his fierce intelligence and particularly winning aesthetic to try to pin that term down.

The works have all been made in response to meeting individuals, couples, families and groups whom Perry feels represent aspects of life in Britain today. He sought to explore “gender, politics, religion and sanity" and having spent three or four days with his subjects he captures each one with startling originality in an artwork. The meetings were filmed by Channel 4 for the accompanying series, Grayson Perry: Who Are You? 

In these touching and tender films Perry seemed to me like a 21st Century Russell Harty; courteous, inquisitive, respectful and, whilst possessing more than the necessary backbone to delve in where others may fear to tread, essentially kind. We also quickly learnt that Perry was not to be underestimated rather he was quite capable of being an iron fist in a potentially penis-embroidered glove. 

That grittiness is most evident in the work depicting Chris Huhne. This portrait is one of Perry's signature pots smashed and painstakingly restored to depict the disgraced politician's seemingly impenetrable veneer. Perry's other subjects range from Kayleigh Khosravi a single mother of four living on a council estate who has found new calm and dignity in her conversion to Islam (portrayed by an intricately printed silk hijab) to X-Factor contestant Rylan Clark (a fake miniature in enamel and plaster of paris). There are also tapestries and a bronze. None are presented as painterly likenesses. 

Every art teacher should take their pupils to see how widely portraiture can be interpreted. Everyone interested in the nature of identity and how, in Perry's words, it's a "shifting multi-layered thing" which accretes over time should beat a path to the National Portrait Gallery now. 

Image: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Comfort Blanket, 2014 Courtesy the Artist, Victoria Miro, London and Paragon | Contemporary Editions Ltd

© Grayson Perry