Rude Britannia : British Comic Art
Catalogue of Tate Britain exhibition, 9 June–5 September 2010
Edited by Tim Batchelor, Cedar Lewisohn & Martin Myrone
London: Tate Publishing, 2010.
Paperback. 160 pages. £19.99. ISBN 978-1-85437-886-6
Reviewed by Gilbert Millat
Université Charles-de-Gaulle – Lille 3
Initially Rude Britannia was the title of a BBC Four series supposedly “investigating three centuries of British satire bawdy and lewd humour”. According to the most brilliant specialist of British graphic satire from Hogarth to the Georgian period, Cambridge historian Vic Gatrell, “it [was] also coincidentally the title of the exhibition of comic art” opening at Tate Britain on 9 June 2010. The curators of the exhibition are likely to have regarded the pun on Rule Britannia, the extraordinarily popular eighteenth-century anthem, as a clever title. Whatever the quality of the television programme which this reviewer has not seen, we can catch more than a glimpse of the Tate exhibition through its 160-page catalogue entitled Rude Britannia : British Comic Art,edited by Tim Batchelor, Cedar Lewisohn and Martin Myrone.
Catchy as it may have sounded, this very title is somewhat confusing. Indeed, it implies that in matters pertaining to British art, comic is synonymous with rude, a comparatively simplistic not to say absurd statement in itself. Even before looking it up in a recent dictionary we seemed to remember that rude means “having or showing a lack of respect for other people and their feeling” as well as “connected with sex or the body in a way that people find offensive or embarrassing”.(1) Much if not most of British comic art has nothing rude about it as appears clearly if we consider the pictures by Charles Jameson Grant, Theodore Lane, John Tenniel, John Leech, Charles Spencelayh, William Giles Baxter, Leo Baxendale, Glen Baxter, Bob and Roberta Smith, Adam Dant, David Shrigley and Klega to be found in the catalogue [23-37].
Even a cursory examination of the cover of the book unfortunately confirms the helter-skelter character of the collection of works presented under that dubious label. The front cover presents Thomas Rowlandson’s A French Dentist Shewing a Specimen of his Artificial Teeth and False Palates (1811), Donald McGill’s saucy seaside postcard A Stick of Rock, Cock? (1952) and Angus Fairhurst’s (1998) The Problem with Banana Skins Divided/Inverted. The reason why the latter should be perceived as either comic or rude proves elusive, while the detail from the Rowlandson print can definitely be described as funny but without the slightest trace of rudeness. Only McGill’s naughty picture fits the title of the book. The same can be said of the back cover where a taxidermy kitten carrying a wooden sign “I’m dead” stands next to an anonymous 1740 etching Idol-Worship or the Way to Preferment. Although the black humour in the dead cat is at best disputable, the rudeness in the etching which features a huge bottom being kissed by a gentleman is obvious.
On the back cover of the catalogue, the exhibition is described as “a wide-screen vision of British comic art, from Hogarth to Spitting Image and beyond”…/…“Taking in paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture, the decorative arts and the moving image”. This pinpoints the hotchpotch nature of the project that is so blatant in the book. Clearly the curators tried to bite off more than they could chew. In addition to essay contributions by Paul Gravett “Frames of Reference: The Progress of Comics”  and Sally O’Reilly “Bawdy Beautiful”  and the transcript of a conversation between Cedar Lewishon, a member of the curatorial team and comedian and TV presenter Harry Hill , this catalogue offers a list of exhibited works [140-149]. It is otherwise divided into more than loosely defined sections such as “British Comic Art” [14-29] (how curious, we had been led to understand that this was the theme of the whole exhibition…), “Social Satire and the Grotesque” [48-63], “Politics” [64-87], “The Bawdy” [92-109] and finally “The Absurd” [114-133]. Each of these sections would possibly have provided excellent titles for a more cogent exhibition of a carefully selected collection of documents, whereas reading through Rude Britannia we are confronted with a frustrating attempt at comprehensiveness. Besides, the curators give the reader the impression that the likes of James Gillray, Aubrey Beardsley and Gerald Scarfe are in the same class as David Shrigley (who knows his Magritte and poses as the early twenty-first-century Marcel Duchamp), Edwina Ashton and Brian Griffiths. Shrigley’s photograph , a so-called “public intervention” of his, representing a Glaswegian vacant lot with a tiny “leisure centre” sign in the middle, is neither comic nor rude, just pathetic. As for Ashton’s Warm Hand of History and Griffiths’s The Body and Ground [122, 123], the least said about these installations in the absurd section, the better. Suffice it to observe that their relationship with the rude, the comic and/or the absurd, if any, is far-fetched.
Satirical prints and cartoons took the lion’s share in the exhibition. Unsurprisingly, approximately one hundred are reproduced in the catalogue. However, as regards this media, the omission of works by such leading figures as Peter Brookes (by any standard one of the most talented cartoonists of his generation), Michael Cummings and Nicholas Garland among many other prominent members of this profession will baffle more than one cartoon addict. Similarly, if David Low is unexpectedly credited with being “considered by many as the greatest political cartoonist of the twentieth century”, only one measly sample of his approximately 14,000 cartoons and caricatures can be seen in this catalogue . Rather like Hamlet without the King of Denmark and certainly enough to make Sir David turn in his grave, pace Batchelor et al.
Besides, another unfortunate consequence of the curators’ Pantagruelian ambition is inadequate contextualisation of some works, especially political cartoons. Our first example can be found in the explanatory text of Idol-Worship or the Way to Preferment  by Martin Myrone. He notes that “a complex contemporary political issue is reduced to an immediately legible and literal image of arse-kissing”. We are duly reminded that the target is Robert Walpole and that the etching is “a physical indictment of the preferment that it was suspected could lead to power, in place of the divinely ordained structures of authority traditionally associated with monarchic states”—which can be described as a fair enough description of the picture. However, the reader learns nothing of the place that is actually represented. Yet, courtesy of Kenneth Baker, author of many superb books about late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century graphic satire, we could have been informed that Walpole’s bottom “straddles the entrance to the Treasury” i.e. “the passage through to the Treasury Building [that] led from the Parade in St James’s Park to Downing Street”. A most valuable piece of information which makes the etching even funnier. Indeed, we can imagine numberless leading politicians metaphorically walking under it and consequently kissing Walpole’s generous buttocks.(2)
The presentation of John Leech’s memorable 1843 Substance and Shadow  provides another example of defective presentation. Firstly, its inclusion in the “British Comic Art” section is nonsense. By contrasting undernourished and unhealthy poor Londoners with gorgeous victuals and healthy and wealthy characters in the pictures in the background, Leech makes a scathing attack on the cynicism of inept politicians. Therefore his aim is definitely not to amuse Punch Magazine readers, but conversely to shock them into awareness of this shameful treatment of the London poor. If anything, this is political and social sarcasm, the comic dimension of which is beyond this reviewer, fond as he is of black humour. Secondly, it should also have been made clear that in the early 1840s Punch was characterised by a radical stand, poles apart from the deplorable aesthetic and ideological conformism in which it was to wallow in later decades. Last but not least, in those days Punch political cartoons came with a long text on the opposite page of the magazine, since the picture was considered as a mere illustration of an editorial.(3)
It also says on the back cover of the catalogue that the “book examines what has kept us amused through good times and bad, telling along the way an alternative history of Britain”. A rather bold statement, if what this otherwise attractively edited catalogue delivers is anything to go by. Graphic satire amateurs generally speaking are unlikely to be enthused by its bizarre collage of unpredictable material, while cartoon fans must end up wondering how its authors managed to offer so little after promising so much. Fortunately, there is no paucity of fascinating publications by Gerald Scarfe, Peter Brookes, Steve Bell and Martin Rowson, to mention only them, notwithstanding the very exciting online galleries of the two Guardian cartoonists, to which that of The Independent’s Dave Brown has to be added. Apart from both aforementioned experts, one can also turn to Colin Seymour-Ure’s study of Low as well as Mark Bryant’s dictionaries and monographs.
Perusing this catalogue turns out to be moderately entertaining. Yet, we would not go as far as subscribing to the curators’ back cover assertion that: “It shows how art and comedy have enjoyed a special relationship in Britain”. To achieve this commendable if ambitious aim, they should have focused on a much smaller range of works. More expertise on each exhibit would also have been required as well as strict definitions of such concepts as comic art. On the other hand, going back to a delicious yellow tropical fruit mentioned earlier on, Tim Batchelor, Cedar Lewisohn and Martin Myrone may have found out what the problem is with banana skins: one is liable to slip on them.
(1) HORNBY, A.S. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. Oxford: University Press, [8th edition], 2010 : 1339.
(2) BAKER, Kenneth. The Prime Ministers : An Irreverent Political History in Cartoons. London: Thames & Hudson, 1995 : 24, 25.
(3) For an analysis of text and cartoon, see MILLAT Gilbert, “Satire graphique et enracinement national : le dessin de presse britannique”. Revue française de civilisation britannique 13-4 (2006) : 162-165.
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