Who Do You Think You Are? - Tracey Emin, BBC One | TV reviews, news & interviews
Who Do You Think You Are? - Tracey Emin, BBC One
A touching romp through the artist's family tree
Tracey Emin once made a tent for which she gained some notoriety. On it, she’d appliquéd the names of everyone she had ever slept with – including, as a child, her beloved Granny Hodgkins. Sadly, the tent, called Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, was destroyed in a fire at Momart, the art-storage warehouse, in 2004. The loss of her tent was keenly felt, and she refused to recreate it. But genealogists in Who Do You Think You Are? gave Emin something to smile about when they dug deep into her family history: Emin comes from a long line of tent-dwellers.
When she was shown pictures of the types of tent – like native American tepees – her gypsy ancestors would have lived in, Emin felt an affinity with her newly discovered bloodline. She was pleased that she had gypsy, possibly Romany, blood running through her veins. What symmetry. And her maternal ancestors had acquired high status, too, at least within their own tight-knit communities: they had married into some of the oldest gypsy families in Warwickshire. (Elsewhere, of course, gypsies faced daily persecution, including threats of being rounded up and whipped by the authorities.)
There are just some areas too daring even for an artist as confessional and soul-bearing as Emin
The programme ended on a teary high note, with Emin romping through grassy Tinker’s Lane where her great-great-great-grandfather’s itinerant family had settled for a while. But the family’s later history had proved to be a grim tour through London’s harsh Victorian penal system. Clearly ashamed of his gypsy heritage, Emin’s great-great-grandfather, Joseph Hodgkins, chose to sever family ties and move to Bethnal Green. Situated in the poorest part of London (at least until its reinvention by the Brit Artists – thanks Tracey) Bethnal Green was hardly much of a step up in the world. But still, it’s barely a stone’s throw from where Emin lives now in her grand house in Spitalfields. (Pictured below: Tracey Emin and Granny Hodgkins.)
For poor Joseph, however, 12 months' hard labour followed for the theft of a large haul of fertiliser. His son, Henry, barely 16 and fresh out of reformatory, would also do time for nicking, amongst other things, a violin (which clearly demonstrated a creative streak, according to Emin). It was sad, but perhaps without them Emin wouldn’t have the impish, roguish streak she’s famous for. “I’m the last of my kind," she said, regretfully, “there’s no more like me.”
Who Do You Think You Are? has a remarkably high tear-count, and what’s always rather touching is how much its subjects end up really rooting for their bloodkin. It’s interesting, too, that Emin’s paternal bloodline was left completely untouched; her Turkish-Cypriot father has featured more heavily in Emin’s work than anyone, apart, of course, from herself.
But though an influence, he was also, effectively, a bigamist, and Emin has never pursued a relationship with her half-siblings. Too painful, perhaps, for her mother. One also notes that there are just some areas too daring even for an artist as confessional and soul-bearing as Tracey Emin.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
Nick Read's long-stretch documentary on remote Russian prison life
Simon Schama campaigns and entertains, but does he explain?
ITV's historical drama is long on intrigue but short on action
Medical drama could have felt tiredly formulaic, but there's freshness in the well-worn tropes
Opening episode of Lord Sugar's business search is a corker
Batman origin story makes a promising start
A history of the Soviet space programme, and the story of one of its more unlikely participants
Maybe the post-Brody 'Homeland' might succeed after all
More tasty treats from the nicest contestants on television (this review contains spoilers)
A cult classic from the golden age of British TV drama
The universe, human life, everything: Brian Cox begins his biggest project yet
Jack Whitehall can write a good joke, but plotting and characterisation are desperate