“A few weeks ago, a famous – and famously beautiful – young novelist found herself unfortunately seated beside me at an otherwise impeccably Hampstead dinner party. Bemoaning the state of British arts in general, she animadverted concerning our undoubted satirical prowess: ‘It’s easy for us, it’s what we do – we just lift an arse cheek and out it comes.’ Actually, I’m not sure she did say the arse-cheek bit – but it was words to that effect.
“Esprit de l’escalier it may’ve been, but I found myself, days later, wondering why exactly it was that we should feel at all shamefaced about our singular collective ability to guy, to poke fun, to take the piss and otherwise generally excoriate. Now comes Rude Britannia, an exhibition of satiric art and cartoon which, if any were needed, provides ample confirmation of not just how deeply the satiric taproot is sunk into British soil, but how crucial its vigorous propagation has always been to our constitution – both political and psychological – while its massy canopy has, for centuries, protected our civil liberties, such as they are.
“Rude Britannia takes a broadly narrative and historical approach to graphic satire, while allowing for sub-sections to treat of the political, the bawdy and the absurd. Beginning in the mid-16th century, with text-heavy allegorical and emblematic prints, the exhibition canters brusquely through the great ribald explosion of the 1700s – Hogarth, Gillray, Rowlandson et al – on through the expansion of print in the Victorian era, and the concomitant democratisation of satire; then presents such wayward and decadent figures as Beardsley, before shepherding in the celebrated 20th-century cartoonists – Low, Scarfe, Steadman – eventually coming up to date with generous space allocated to such nominally “fine” artists as John Isaacs, Sarah Lucas and David Shrigley.
Read the rest of Will Self on an exhibition that celebrates the great British satirical impulse in art in today’s Guardian Review.