PICS: A look at 300 years of comic art

2010-06-08 12:24

Some countries overthrow their politicians. Some endure them. In

Britain, they just laugh at them.

The renowned British sense of humour is on display in a new London

exhibition that charts 300 years of the anarchic artistic spirit that produced

the political satire of William Hogarth and Spitting Image – as well as the

sheer silliness of Benny Hill.

Rude Britannia, which opens tomorrow at the Tate Britain gallery,

is a feast of irreverence and bad form that asks whether there is a

distinctively British sense of humour and examines how humour is intertwined

with the country’s cultural and political history.

Tate Britain director Penelope Curtis said: “This isn’t necessarily

about ‘funny ha ha’, although there are jokes. It’s about how the comic is used

to do things we can’t do in other ways. Often the comic artist is making a very

serious point about something that can’t be said openly.”

Curator Martin Myrone said there has long been a belief that “a

distinct British character – informal, humorous, sarcastic” has produced a

strong seam of comic art.

He said that while arguing for national character in art is

problematic – and not all the artists in the show are British by birth – “humour

has had a very important role to play in the way the story of British art has

been told”.

While European artists like Jacques-Louis David were striving to

create a high-minded new classicism 200 years ago, in Britain the likes of

Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray and Hogarth were using their talents to

satirise and caricature the politicians of the day.

The exhibition begins in the 17th century, when printing technology

first allowed the mass production of cartoons and political broadsides. Then, as

now, cartoonists took aim at politics, the economy and social ills.

One of the earliest works shows Oliver Cromwell, who overthrew the

monarchy, donning the regalia of a king. The more things change, many of the

artists here seem to say, the more they stay the same.

Some of the images are tastelessly timeless, like the anonymous

18th-century etching Idol-Worship or the Way to Preferment, which shows

gentlemen kissing the enormous posterior of Robert Walpole, a politician widely

regarded as Britain’s first prime minister.

Throughout the exhibition, crass toilet humour intertwines with the

political. The crude slapstick of TV’s Benny Hill Show or the Carry On movies is

as central to the British comic tradition as the exalted Hogarth.

One of the show’s six themed rooms is devoted to explicitly bawdy

art, from 200-year-old erotic etchings to the saucy seaside postcards of Donald

McGill, full of plump, smiling figures emitting double entendres that may even

cause blushes among readers today.

They are on display still attached to the index cards kept by a

disapproving public prosecutor, who amassed a thick file on McGill.

The exhibition’s centrepiece is a room devoted to politics, showing

how artists have skewered politicians from Napoleon Bonaparte to Adolf Hitler

and prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

British political cartoons are often much more vicious and visceral

than their North American counterparts. In one of the milder instances, the

Guardian’s Steve Bell invariably depicted Prime Minister John Major wearing his

underpants over his trousers. Another editorial cartoonist, Martin Rowson, has

shown post-Iraq war Blair drenched in blood.

In the 1980s, satirical puppet show Spitting Image depicted

Thatcher as a butcher with a bloody cleaver. Cartoonist Gerald Scarfe turned her

into a prehistoric predator: the Torydactyl.

Today, Scarfe acknowledges affection for the Iron Lady as a

subject, despite their political disagreements.

He says: “Mrs Thatcher was great, because she was a strong woman

and she produced strong images. The cartoon comes from the character. You can’t

make weak people strong.”

Many of the works on display mock but some also appeal for change.

Hogarth’s 1751 Gin Lane and George Cruikshank’s 1862 The Worship of Bacchus are

both savage depictions of the damage done by excessive alcohol that helped

change social attitudes.

In the 1930s, David Low’s cartoons of Hitler helped turn British

feeling against appeasement. Posters used by protesters against the invasion of

Iraq unsuccessfully exhorted Blair to Make Tea, Not War.

Scarfe, whose work appears in the Sunday Times newspaper, said at

the best of times comic art “can produce a kind of rallying point around which

people can gather and think, ‘That’s what I was feeling but couldn’t put into

words’. I hope it helps sum up people’s feelings and hopefully eventually it can

become a movement.”

Scarfe is, however, realistic about the limits of satire’s power.

He says many politicians secretly enjoy being caricatured and often ask if they

can buy cartoons of themselves.

And after centuries of satire, Britain officially remains a

monarchy with its upper class firmly intact. Laughter has not led to


Myrone said: “Perhaps we haven’t had a revolution because of the

safety valve provided by that satirical art. So it can be quite a conservative


Rude Britannia is at Tate Britain until September 5.

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