Rude awakening: A new Tate exhibition details the revolution fomented by visual satire (and downright smut!)

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

During the 1780s, the French ambassador to the Court of St James is rumoured to have written a despatch to Versailles, outlining his fears that Britain was teetering on the verge of revolution. He'd reached this disturbing conclusion because of the free availability of ribald satirical prints depicting members of the Royal Family. These prints by James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and many others were merciless in their lèse-majesté: if he was lucky, George III would escape with being portrayed as a bovine rustic bumpkin; his son was never lucky enough to be shown as anything but a drunken, lecherous buffoon.

As the ambassador's coach purveyed him from salon to Court to levee, he would have passed little kiosks peddling this smut, often hiring it out for the night, like a modern DVD. These booths lined the Strand and Fleet Street, stretching all the way from Charing Cross almost to St Paul's. So it's no surprise, given the evidence of this squalid trade, that the ambassador came to the conclusion he did.

After all, unlike France under the stable absolutism of the Bourbons, the British had form. One hundred and thirty years previously they had chopped off one king's head and called it a revolution; in 1688, they chased another king from his throne, and called that a "Glorious" revolution. As any civilised gentleman in Europe knew, the British were little better than beasts, and consequently highly susceptible to the destabilising effects of mucky pictures of the Prince Regent rogering his doxy. Revolution was inevitable, therefore, because apart from anything else, the British were just so... well, rude.

Of course, we know now that the ambassador was completely, and fatally, wrong. It was France that had the revolution, and then the deranged bloodletting of the Terror; and France which, before the Revolution, had been awash with bloodcurdling sexual libels about Marie Antoinette and the Court. The difference, crucially, lay in the fact that French rudeness was kept sealed inside the foetid pressure cooker of the Ancien Regime until it exploded.

Then again, we all know that the French are the rudest people on earth. Except, maybe, for the Israelis, with their tradition of the harsh egalitarianism of the kibbutzim. Unless, that is, you've ever met Russian bar staff in a London pub. As for New Yorkers...

Actually, it is we British – the shy, embarrassed, polite and reserved British – who have enjoyed a far worse reputation for savage rudeness. I long ago worked out, from bitter experience amid the hate mail and death threats I've received from around the world, that while I see my work as a cartoonist as firmly in the tradition of William Hogarth and Gillray, everyone else sees it as breathtakingly vicious. And it is this tradition that is celebrated in Tate Britain's major new exhibition, Rude Britannia: British Comic Art, examining the plaited strands of British rudeness over the past 300 years (including my own valedictory cartoon of Tony Blair as Prime Minister, telling him, through the magic of bad puns, to fuck off in three different ways).

"Rudeness", in this case, is both less and more than farting in church or mooning on the last bus home. While we all secretly enjoy a bit of smut, almost as much as we enjoy saying rude things about other people out of earshot, what the exhibition reveals is the level to which shifting standards in private behaviour have succeeded or failed to expand into being tolerated in the public arena. It also tacitly acknowledges that transgression from the private to public sphere often provides the best part of the joke.

Thus, under the theme of "Bawdy", one part of the exhibition goes from Rowlandson's semi-pornographic, under-the-counter erotica from the late 18th century, through Aubrey Beardsley's notorious priapic illustrations of Aristophanes' Lysistrata – which Beardsley ordered to be burned after his deathbed conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1898 – to Donald McGill's dirty seaside postcards, which were successfully prosecuted and ordered to be destroyed by a magistrate's court in Margate in the 1950s. These fluctuating fortunes in what is and isn't tolerable are reflected in the exhibition's examination of social and political comic art, and the extent to which visual satire has been able to get away with telling power that it's stupid, it's got a big nose and it should just bugger off.

That visual humour was ever able to get away with it is, in a way, slightly miraculous. Since the invention of printing, there had always been scurrilous images making political points, but they had usually been partisan and therefore under the protection of powerful patrons. What was new about 18th-century visual satire was that it publicly articulated the universal human emotion that the king is an idiot, but without the consequence that the print-maker would have his work burnt and his ears sheared off by the public hangman.

Although "tolerance" was central to the Whig philosophy underpinning the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the Censorship Laws lapsed in 1695, the failure to renew them was more down to oversight than principle. Nonetheless, that act of neglect left Britain unique in the world. There was a sudden mushrooming of satire of all kinds, which governments were largely unable to control. Robert Walpole was subjected to a sustained, personalised onslaught, and even his title, as first "Prime Minister", was a term, like the words "Christian" and "Tory", first coined as an insult to mock, in this case, Walpole's propensity for accruing offices, money and power for himself.

Indeed, the satirical mood of the times has coloured the way we think we see the whole century: mucky, rumbustious, earthy, humorous and, definingly, Hogarthian. The art critic Robert Hughes summed it up thus: "Modern squalor is squalid but Georgian squalor is 'Hogarthian', an art form in itself." Even at his most polemical and preachy – in Gin Lane, for instance, or in A Rake's Progress – you feel that Hogarth can't stop himself laughing while he's lecturing.

And taking the piss was, quite literally, the point. In the 18th and 19th centuries, London was the largest and richest city the world had seen, and for most of that time existed without flush toilets or adequate sewers. Visual satirists such as Philip Dawe could outstrip their merely textual counterparts in depicting the absurdity of the elite's finery being dragged through the gutter, while at the same time he and his peers were, through mockery, stripping away the robes of power to show the pissing, shitting, sweating human being underneath, no less stinky than you and me. A generation after Hogarth, Gillray was still exercising Swift's scatalogical vision in satirical prints of Prime Minister Pitt defecating paper money into the Bank of England or, during the Napoleonic Wars, George III transformed into a map of Britain and showering shit out of the Solent over the French invasion fleet.

Now that's rude by anyone's standards, and its purpose satirically is primal: it's voodoo, doing damage to an enemy at a distance with a sharp object, although in this case it's an etching tool or a nib rather than a needle. That's why visual satire works, in its capacity to insult and therefore belittle men who think themselves great; that's why the cartoonist David Low was placed on the Gestapo's death list, because he'd dared to draw Hitler as a bloody fool in a stupid uniform and with a Charlie Chaplin moustache.

Between Gillray and Low, however, rudeness did not prosper, in public at least. Creeping respectability and the middle class's increasing insistence on deference meant Gladstone and Disraeli never suffered the indignities of Pitt, although hypocrisy did allow for innuendo to come fully into its own, even if only among the masses in the music halls. A century on, the moral actions of the burghers of Margate in burning McGill's immoral postcards were probably an unconscious stabilising response to a recent war which had been set in course by other moralists burning books, then burning people.

But that was almost respectability's last hurrah. A decade-and-a-half later, the Lord Chamberlain – brought in to impose political censorship on the theatre by Walpole after the success of The Beggar's Opera, but dedicated to extirpating the sauce and the foul language for most of the next 200 years – was gone, and soon afterwards most of the prevalent taboos had gone too. So you rather wonder, when you get to the YBAs represented in the exhibition, such as Sarah Lucas, who exactly they're being rude to, and how iconoclastic you can be when your patrons specialise in putting on displays of smashed icons in their respectable galleries.

But although firebombing the Saatchi Collection remains terribly attractive as an exercise in all sorts of rudeness, maybe the new doesn't shock any more. And anyway, perhaps the point of rudeness isn't to shock the "rudee" at all, but just make the rude and their mates snigger, thereby evening up all sorts of different social and political equations for those who are in on the joke. After all, from 1849 until the 1920s, Punch, the embodiment of stifling Victorian respectability, ran the same Richard Doyle cover every week, with just the issue number and date changed, brazening its frieze of Mr Punch on a mule, fondling his huge erect cock. Either no one noticed, or they were smirking fit to bust.

Rude Britannia is at Tate Britain, London SW1 (tate.org.uk), from Wednesday

Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz