From ‘Essex Girl’ to Towie: A new exhibition shows the county has had the last laugh

Mocked and maligned for generations, a new exhibition from Michael Landy that shows how Essex has been portrayed in the media over the past 30 years aims to change your mind, writes William Cook

Thursday 15 July 2021 22:12
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<p>The raw mercantilism of Essex, its refusal to mind its manners, has always been a threat to the metropolitan status quo</p>

The raw mercantilism of Essex, its refusal to mind its manners, has always been a threat to the metropolitan status quo

Welcome to England’s most misunderstood county,” reads the sign in the foyer of Firstsite, Colchester’s stylish arts centre. No prizes for guessing which county that might be. The answer is (and always has been) Essex. Mocked and maligned for generations, it’s been the butt of snobby put-downs for as long as anyone can remember. But now the tide has turned. People from Essex have always been fiercely proud of their home county, and now they’re reclaiming those elitist sneers and turning them to their own advantage. There’s an extra swagger about Essex nowadays, a self-confidence that other counties lack. And the latest sign of that self-belief is this new exhibition, Welcome to Essex, by the artist Michael Landy.

“You could look at this exhibition and think, ‘Oh, Michael Landy hates Essex’,” he tells me, as he walks me round the show. “I’m not saying that at all.” On the contrary, his exhibition is a celebration of a place that’s so often dismissed as somewhere that good taste forgot – “an easy target for lazy journalists,” as Landy puts it. Welcome to Essex surveys that lazy journalism and reveals the more complex truth beneath. For Landy, it’s about the “demonisation of the working class” but it’s a demonisation that’s driven by unease. The raw mercantilism of Essex, its refusal to mind its manners, has always been a threat to the metropolitan status quo.

Landy grew up in Ilford, once part of Essex but now part of London (however, like a lot of that East London hinterland it retains its Essex identity to this day). One of the Young British Artists who broke through in the 1990s, he’s probably best known for Breakdown (2000-2001) in which he catalogued and then destroyed every single thing he owned. Ironically, he’s now turned his attention to a county commonly associated with conspicuous consumption. Welcome to Essex shows how Essex has been portrayed in the media over the past 30 years, and how that public image has shifted, from sexist “Essex Girl” jokes to aspirational shows like The Only Way is Essex (Towie star Amy Childs is Michael’s cousin). “Reading all the headlines, you start to build a picture,” he says. It’s a picture of caricature and condescension, but Essex has had the last laugh.

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