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November 07 2011

Hogarth's house to reopen after surviving fire – and urban sprawl

Georgian satirist's Chiswick retreat restored thanks to lottery cash and volunteers from the William Hogarth Trust

When William Hogarth's home was advertised for sale in 1814, the Morning Chronicle called it "a small but highly respectable house in an excellent garden walled around". Almost 200 years later – and about to reopen to visitors after a restoration during which it narrowly escaped being destroyed by fire – the country retreat is now deep in busy west London.

Hogarth's mulberry tree still grows in the garden, but his studio at the end of it is a derelict factory, a gable window looks out on a towering office block and the former country track named Hogarth Lane after him is six lanes of traffic roaring out of the Chiswick roundabout towards the M4.

Inside, however, it is recognisably the same house once occupied by the great Georgian satirist. Many possessions have returned for the first time since the artist's death, including his palette – later owned by JMW Turner – on loan from the Royal Academy, his paint box, and his ladle, glasses and precious Chinese porcelain punchbowl that was broken and carefully mended several times.

At a time when many local authority museums face crippling cuts, the house – which is owned by Hounslow council and has been a museum since 1904 – is about to reopen after a lottery-funded restoration. Admission will be free and opening hours will be longer and six days a week thanks to the help of volunteers from the William Hogarth Trust. Historian Val Bott, of the trust, has spent years researching the house, its residents and contents. She said: "Even in the 19th century there was concern about the future of this house but our researchers have shown that the people who had it then were well aware of its heritage and took very good care of it."

Hogarth, the poorly educated son of a Latin teacher who served five years in debtors' prison when Hogarth was young, became one of the most renowned social satirists of the 18th century. His print series such as The Rake's Progress and Marriage à la Mode and his stark images such as Gin Lane inspire artists and cartoonists to this day. In 1729 he married the daughter of the society artist Sir James Thornhill and 20 years later they bought the small house on the edge of open fields, on the outskirts of the fashionable riverside village of Chiswick, then a rural refuge from the noise and grime around their home in Leicester Square.

Although they had no children, Hogarth was a founding patron and fundraiser for his friend Captain Coram's Foundling Hospital, often inviting children from the hospital to stay in Chiswick and, according to legend, bringing them pies made from mulberries in the garden. Hogarth died in 1764 at his London home, but chose to be buried in Chiswick, and his wife, sister and cousin continued to occupy the house until 1808. Bott has traced all the later residents, a surprisingly colourful bunch including the Rev Henry Francis Cary, who produced a renowned translation of Dante, entertained writer friends in the house including William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb and Thomas de Quincey, and became assistant keeper of printed books at the British Museum (from where he resigned in disgust when he failed to be appointed keeper); and the flamboyant actor Newton Treen Hicks, known as Brayvo, whose most spectacular characters were sold as prints to be cut out and enacted in toy theatres.

The house was due to reopen a year ago, but in August 2009 fire broke out in a ground floor electrical cupboard. It spread behind the wooden panelling and in the attic where servants once slept there is still an overpowering stench of smoke. Firefighters were just in time to prevent the house from being gutted.But the valuable prints collection was still in store and much that was destroyed was from the 1990s, including a hideous pink carpet.

New loans to the house include memorabilia from a major Hogarth collection at Aberdeen art gallery, which was built up in the 19th century by a granite quarry owner called Hogarth who believed himself a descendant – wrongly, since the Hogarth women who lived on in the house were all impeccably childless.

The house will be formally reopened by the Irish comedian Dara O'Briain – "humorist, social commentator, Chiswick resident - what could be more appropriate?" Bott said. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 09 2011

I depict a riot

London's current mayhem has a history and some great art perfectly captures the terror and lawlessness of past upheaval

These are the worst social upheavals in London in living memory, say police. What about beyond living memory? The capital has seen some spectacular riots and rebellions. The early ones were not filmed or photographed, but can be seen in old paintings and prints.

In an illumination from a medieval manuscript of Froissart's Chronicles, the king and his lords in their pageantry confront an army of poor men in front of the towers and spires of London. The peasants' revolt in 1381 stormed into the capital and overran the Tower of London, whose defenders were massacred. The feudal nobility knew how to fight back. After the rebellion's leader Wat Tyler went to negotiate with the king he was stabbed to death – the nobles claimed he started it, and there were no mobile phone pictures to contradict their story – and the social order violently reimposed.

King Charles I was not so lucky in the 1640s, as his quarrel with parliament degenerated into war. In London, the radical Levellers staged debates on social justice at Putney. Anthony van Dyck's portrait of two aristocratic brothers, Lord John Stuart and Lord Bernard Stuart, in the National Gallery, conveys the scale of the conflict. The painting is a silken assertion of ruling-class hauteur; these young men in their lace and long hair seem born to rule. But they never did, because both were killed fighting on the royalist side in the civil war.

Neither the 1381 peasants' revolt nor the English civil war have much in common with the rioting and looting in London in August 2011, but there is far more of a parallel with the Gordon riots in 18th-century London. A contemporary print illustrating the destruction of Newgate prison during these massive riots in 1780 looks oddly familiar to anyone who has been looking at this week's images. The prison has been set on fire by the crowd and blazes uncontrollably. Meanwhile, prisoners escape and the prison is looted.

The Gordon riots were not pretty. The poor of 18th-century London lived on the edge, in a gin-sodden urban nightmare, if we are to believe William Hogarth's print Gin Lane. Desperation did not breed lofty ideals: the riots were provoked by a softening of the laws against Catholics. Bigoted rioters attacked foreign embassies and Catholic neighbourhoods. Yet the images eerily resemble London this week: in another 18th-century print, the crowd stoke a bonfire of furniture in front of the blazing hulk of Newgate, recognising, as rioters did this week, that furniture and furniture shops burn well.

The Gordon riots surely were the biggest in London's history to date. Hundreds of people were shot dead to bring the insurrection to a close. The cause of radicalism in Britain was hindered by the spectre of mob rule.

Looking at prints of the capital in flames in 1780 the contemporary parallels are striking. On this evidence, the riots of 2011 will take their place among the most epic upheavals in the entire history of London. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 16 2011

London parish's descent from glamour to grime charted in exhibition

Archaeological finds in St Giles on show at Museum of London give insight into the lives of the infamous Rookery slum dwellers, once the capital's most notorious slum

The skin is about to be ripped back from one of the most foetid slums in Britain, a London parish which became such a byword for filth and squalor that the phrase "a St Giles cellar" literally signified the lowest depth of abject poverty.

A unique collaboration of archaeology by the Museum of London, and historical research and new paintings by the artist Jane Palm-Gold, will reveal the lives of the thousands of people who once lived crammed into the Rookery, a warren of semi-derelict homes, alleys and courtyards where Renzo Piano's huge multi-coloured office and residential blocks now rise behind Centre Point in the West End.

The archaeological finds, to be displayed for the first time in the exhibition as the excavators launch their report on the site, chart the startling decline from 17th-century affluence to Georgian squalor, as the old houses were subdivided and let out as common lodgings – with so many Irish Catholic residents, it was dubbed "Little Dublin" or "the Holy Land".

Luxury imported china and glass, and charming objects such as the fuddling-cup, a puzzle vessel for tavern drinking games, gave way to the cheapest and poorest: 19th-century finds include chamber pots, clay pipes, gaming tokens, cheap flashy jewellery probably worn by prostitutes, and a baby's feeding bottle which may often have held gin, when one in four premises was a gin shop – and far fewer possessions of any kind than are found in comparable sites.

One excavated cellar is believed to have been home to many families, and had an open sewer running across the floor. Another massive cesspit provided many of the finds.

Sian Anthony, who led the dig, found evidence backing residents' complaints that landlords frequently boarded pits over and left them full, rather than pay for them to be cleaned out.

An 1847 medical report described the area as "a disgrace to a civilised country," and in 1849 some residents actually wrote to the Times: "We live in muck and filth. We aint got no priviz, no dust bins, no drains, no water-splies, and no drain or suer in the hole place."

One outsider recorded in 1852 – when the area had slightly improved: "In a back alley opening onto Church Street was a den which looked more like a cow-house than a room for human beings – little if any light came through and yet 17 human beings ate drank and slept there; the floor was damp and below the level of the court; the gutters overflowed; when it rained, the rain gushed in at the apertures."

The archaeologists also found one of the infamous secret passages, which meant the police – if they dared venture in – found it almost impossible to catch criminals, who could escape through a maze of escape routes through, over and under buildings.

Palm-Gold's paintings, inspired by historic prints including William Hogarth's Gin Lane, track the contemporary wild side of the area where she lives. She personally witnessed all the depicted incidents from the windows or balcony of her flat in her panorama Crack Lane. They include the crack dealer who broke open and moved into the bin store of her own buildings, two men found dead in the community Phoenix Gardens, a couple having sex by the churchyard steps, a punter attacked by two prostitutes joined by two crack dealers, and a drug user smashing open letter boxes to steal not the contents of the envelopes but the identities, a flourishing local trade.

On another occasion she saw police hunting through bushes, looking for drugs. When they finally gave up, she watched two men ripping back a grating covering the opening to the church crypt to recover the drugs they had thrown in.

It all repelled and fascinated her predecessors – Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson and Gustav Dore were among the artists drawn to the area. As she pored through hundreds of prints in the British Museum and other archives, she came to recognise characters drawn by many artists, who reappear as ghostly figures in her own pictures: Billy Waters, king of the beggars; Old Simon Edy with his flowing hair and beard who lived under a broken staircase in Dyott Street; blind Charlie Wood with his dancing dog, Bob.

She moved to the heart of the area in 2003 – the road past her door was once the dirt track to a huge leper hospital – and absolutely loved it. "It is completely wild, and some of the things I have seen you would just not believe, but I have never had better neighbours anywhere. They'll carry me out of here in a box."

* London's Underworld Unearthed: the Secret Life of the Rookery, Coningsby Gallery London, 17 May-3 June © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 18 2011

Hogarth's hustings get my vote

William Hogarth painted the squalid side of 18th-century politics – a stark reminder, as the AV referendum approaches, that our electoral system needs to change

William Hogarth's series of paintings The Election hang in Sir John Soane's Museum in London. They are his most paradoxically balletic satires, holding hilarious details of drunkenness, violence and mob mayhem in musical balance across cleverly organised designs. Look at the sunlight, the landscapes and arrangement of bodies in these pictures and it is clear that by the time he painted these raw yet lyrical scenes he was steeped in European high art and was able to juggle forms like a low-life Poussin.

Another reason to look at these paintings right now is that they portray an electoral system that made no pretence at democracy. The hustings Hogarth portrays is the squalid political world of the 18th century, many decades before the Great Reform Act started to lay the foundations of modern British politics. Reformers would call the system Hogarth shows "Old Corruption", and his Election Entertainment, with its burghers slumped in their seats from all the free oysters and punch, takes visual delight in exactly how corrupt Old Corruption was.

Old Corruption looks likely to win a new victory in the AV referendum. Public opinion seems to be moving towards a "no". The No campaign has been scarily well-organised. Months before the issue came to the fore, No campaigners were setting up street stalls. Where did they come from, these folk with a passion for constitutional stasis? After all the outrage and allegations of corruption thrown at politicians in Britain – parliamentarians have gone to jail, remember, as a result of the expenses scandal – it seems outrageous, and insulting, that the chance to change the voting system a little bit might be spurned. What was all the fuss about? The prison sentences? Just to stay the same?

Perhaps Hogarth can tell us something. He painted his satires long before reforms took place. They are sardonic accounts of human nature, rather than campaigning polemics. In today's politics, he would be a Tory because in the end he thinks the status quo is a laugh. But his urban, carnival art is an exception in the art of his time, when portraits of race horses and landscapes of aristocratic ease displayed the glory of the ruling order. They echo down to this day as icons of British conservatism. If Cameron gets a No to electoral reform, this will surely be a decisive moment when we can see what is happening in Britain today: the resurgence of Conservative habits that are as old as the painted hills and hustings. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 02 2010

When Hockney met Hogarth

The artist first worked with director John Cox on their version of The Rake's Progress 35 years ago. As it returns to Glyndebourne, the pair talk philistines, deafness and iPads

The long, oak-panelled walls of the Old Green Room at Glyndebourne are decorated with images from historic productions. Sketches of costume designs and sets, photographs of famous singers and conductors, great moments going back to the birth of the festival in 1934. David Hockney is inspecting details from the 1975 production of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, revived this year. His eye catches a fragment of a poster, distinctively illustrated in his own hand, that reads "décor by David Hockney, assited [sic] by Mo McDermott". The missing 's' has been hastily drawn in above the 'i'. "Which is how you can tell it is genuine," he laughs. "My spelling is terrible. Somewhere else I left an 'e' out of Glyndebourne. But the people here didn't seem to mind too much."

Hockney's production, directed by John Cox, has proved one of the festival's most durable successes. It opens again on Sunday, in what will be its seventh revival. Over the years, Hockney's delicate crosshatched responses to Hogarth's 18th-century series of prints have proved a potent calling card, with the production transferring all over the world – to La Scala, the Sydney opera house, Paris and New York. The extent to which Hockney in bucolic mode has become part of Glyndebourne's iconography is reinforced by his cover illustration of this year's lavish festival brochure, another project he has undertaken for a seventh time.

"Sometimes it feels like yesterday when we first had a go at it," he says of the opera. "Other times it feels like for ever ago. Time is elastic, as we know, but in the piano rehearsal yesterday it really didn't look or feel 35 years old – it gave me quite a lift to see it again. Opera productions that date tend to have a bit too much topicality in them. When John and I first spoke, I said I wanted to find a 20th-century way of doing things, but I knew we were dealing with the 18th century."

It is difficult to imagine now, but when Hockney was initially suggested for the project there was doubt as to whether it would succeed. On the opposite wall of the Old Green Room is a display of the previous Glyndebourne production of the opera, which had the satirical illustrator Osbert Lancaster in charge of the designs. Following its premiere in Venice in 1951, with a libretto by WH Auden and his friend Chester Kallman, Glyndebourne's production at the 1953 Edinburgh festival was the first British staging; it became a summer regular in Sussex.

"The haute bourgeoisie was very comfortable with Osbert's view of English society," explains Cox. "He made the work not only vivid, but vivacious. It was amusingly familiar to look at, but slightly off-kilter, as is the piece. It won its way in to the repertoire despite the slightly conservative bent of the audience. Then we came along to rip it up and start again. But thankfully we were both too young to be daunted by that prospect back then."

By 1975, Cox was regularly directing one production a year at Glyndebourne and had built a reputation away from the core repertoire. "I was a bit on the fringe, and had done things for the St Pancras festival and Wexford. I was given those pieces that were thought a bit difficult and needed a bit of grip and interpretation." Cox approached Hockney, knowing that as a young painter he had made his own version of Hogarth's A Rake's Progress, based on his first visit to New York in the early 1960s. "David seemed to know about irony and social satire. I thought he would be at ease with the intellectual and moral problems within the piece."

Hockney was already an opera fan and "knew if you wanted to do something spectacular in the theatre, then you went to opera. I'd never understood people who said they were bored by it. They must have no ears and no eyes, and I really pity them. But of course I was also a little cautious, as I didn't know this opera. My number one rule became 'Don't fuck up the music.' It's not the job of a set designer to make an opera come alive. That's the job of the composer, conductor, orchestra and singers.

"But opera is meant to have spectacle, and so I did listen very carefully to the music without knowing too much about it in a technical sense. And it became obvious that when a composer puts in a musical transformation, there is meant to be a corresponding spectacle on stage. The music tells you exactly where to locate it, if you listen hard enough. And if it's done well you get a sense of harmony to which the audience instinctively reacts."

Cox found Hockney's limited colour palette a revelation. Innocent greens in the opening scenes are offset by a splash of red on Tom Rakewell's jacket, which then "spreads and bleeds with the onset of his luxury and success". Blacks and whites go on to define his decline, fall and redemption. "The text was important to David, but his designs are inextricably linked to, and are a gift to, the music. The relationship between the eye and ear is remarkable."

The experience launched Hockney into two decades of opera. "I loved being at Glyndebourne. It's an idyllic setting, and the people tend to be young and keen. They have energy and pick things up quickly. But I love working in theatre in general. It's the only time I really collaborate, which I know means some element of compromise, but theatre people are tolerant and generous and aware of frailty – they seem to be same all over the world. I'm sure they've always been the same types. There were probably two little queens making the wigs back in Shakespeare's day."

Hockney and Cox went on to collaborate on a Glyndebourne Magic Flute and a Covent Garden Die Frau ohne Schatten. Plans for a Parsifal with Plácido Domingo in the US fell through because of Domingo's schedule and Hockney's deteriorating hearing. "I can still listen to music, but it became difficult to really judge it properly," says Hockney. "So now I mostly avoid noisy places. You'll notice that the deaf don't go to meetings about deafness. Part of the reason I've moved back to Bridlington [in east Yorkshire] is that it's pretty quiet."

But he says there have also been unexpected benefits. "I've just read the wonderful new book of Van Gogh's letters. He was aware of being able to see increasingly clearly, and as I've got deafer I've noticed that I'm using my eyes better. I'm a professional eye person, so it is some compensation."

As travel and using the phone have become more onerous, Hockney has turned to new communication technology and is now evangelical about the iPad. "I write my little letters to the Guardian on it, and I draw, and now I make films." He shows me a drawing of a chair in his Glyndebourne bedroom, which he made at six this morning. He plays it back so that the lines appear on the screen in the order in which he made them. "Now a bit of white comes in ... the light goes across ... here's a detail on the arm. It is a remarkable thing to see your own thought processes played out in this way. I'd never seen myself draw before."

His work on the iPad will feature in an exhibition in Paris later this year, and then as part of a larger Royal Academy show in 2012. "I'm creating work on these new bits of kit, but if you want to see them in any way apart from one at a time you need an old-fashioned exhibition. It's just like the fact that we monitor all the latest technology from Brid[lington], not Hollywood. It's a combination of the best of the old and the best of the new and, of course, there are all sorts of application to music and stage and everything else."

Even if Hockney and Cox no longer work together on new operas, it seems they will always have this one to return to – and, Cox says, each revival throws up something new. "The piece has always been performer-based, so you find what singers you have and do a little with their strengths. The big difference this time is that it is being conducted by [Vladimir] Jurowski. I've always looked upon it as an English opera which happened to have been written by a Russian living in America. Jurowski sees it as a Russian opera which happens to have an English theme."

The revival runs through August and, along with this year's productions of Billy Budd and Hansel and Gretel, will also be screened in cinemas and on a live relay to the 18th-century courtyard of Somerset House in London. "It's still just words and music and images coming together," says Hockney. "And so long as the words and images work with, and not against, the music, the eye and ear come together in the most remarkable way. You create something really extraordinary."

• The Rake's Progress opens at Glyndebourne on Sunday. Details: There will be live screenings at Somerset House, London, and Picturehouse cinemas across the country on 21 August. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 22 2010

Pleasure's Progress | Dance review

Jerwood Dance House, Ipswich

Hogarth famously occupies a place in the British dance canon though Ninette de Valois's 1935 ballet The Rake's Progress. But what former Royal Ballet dancer and choreographer Will Tuckett takes from the great man's satire is more like choreographed opera: a rude, ebullient and touching fusion of movement, text and song.

Pleasure's Progress comes vividly steeped in English wit and history, and, like much of Tuckett's best work, appears to have been created on a shoestring, its action conjured out of a few props and scraggy corsets. The conceit of the show is that it's being performed by inmates of Bedlam, who, under Hogarth's own direction, perform stories from his cartoons. Moll Hackabout, Viscountess Squanderfield and Tom Rakewell are among the shaven-headed, pox-ridden derelicts clamouring to tell of their fall "to the gutter and the gaol". Tuckett plays brilliantly to the strengths of his performers – alternately foregrounding singing and dance – but his cast are all multitalented. Matthew Hart's Rake is both funny and affecting, a big, exuberant adult-child puffed up with the naughtiness of his sins and bewildered by his punishment.

Paul Englishby's music and Alisdair Middleton's libretto create a delicious fusion of 18th- and 21st-century voices. Very occasionally, the work sags under the weight of its complicated structure, but it has moments of genius. The bawdy is exemplary in its mix of filth and elegance: a love duet invoking the pastoral delights of Squanderfield's "lady garden" blossoms with rococo innuendo. But you never stop hearing the stark, timeless note of Hogarth's satire. As the characters wreck their lives through gin, whoring and cards, Pleasure's Progress feels like a contemporary morality tale on the British compulsion to get wasted.

Rating: 4/5 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 12 2010

Rude Britannia

Tate Britain, London

In summer 1795, George Canning, future prime minister, records some tantalising news in his diary. "Mr Gillray has been much solicited to publish a caricature of me and intends doing so!" he swanks. A month passes without the promised glory. He admits to concern. By Christmas, there is still no image.

In the end, Canning waits an agonising year – furtively checking the print shops – for the negligible honour of appearing as a corpse in Gillray's Promised Horrors of the French Invasion. But by then vanity has devoured him. You might say he has already turned into a Gillray caricature.

Life imitating art: that is one measure of a caricaturist's genius. Another is the masochism of his victims – the celebrity buying her own Spitting Image puppet, the politician hoping to appear in a Steve Bell cartoon. In which respect, as in so many others, Gillray still reigns supreme, this artist who could mock the Queen as a syphilitic crone with wizened dugs bared, talons clawing at the prime minister's crotch, and still find eager patrons at the palace.

You will not see this devastating image in Rude Britannia at Tate Britain. Perhaps the curators did not find it comic. Their Gillray is the schoolbook satirist, the man who drew Pitt and Napoleon carving up the plum pudding of the world and that dangerous revolutionary Charles James Fox with no trousers (sans-culottes? Remember?) Likewise, their Hogarth is the author of those history lesson classics, Gin Lane and Marriage à-la-Mode.

But if that sounds too regular, too tame, not funny enough, the curators then go mad in the other direction. An entire gallery, lined with blushing red wallpaper, is given over to cocks. Here they are – ha ha – in the hands of Sarah Lucas, Grayson Perry and Beryl Cook's fat ladies, to name an assorted few. Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations to Lysistrata, with all their whiplash elegance, appear alongside a cartoon of Rupert the Bear penetrating Mary Whitehouse while the Pope looks on. Lord knows what mirthless debates must have occurred, how the organisers ever managed to limit their scope.

However they did it, the result is surprisingly poor. This show is all over the place. But perhaps it could not have been otherwise. Any exhibition that includes everything from toby jugs to the highly original humour of Max Beerbohm in the last century and David Shrigley in this, that runs all the way from Gillray to Donald McGill's jolly seaside postcards without any obvious change of tone, is clearly suffering from too many conflicting ambitions. And any show of comic art that barely includes any paintings after Hogarth has a peculiar sense of humour and art.

Rude Britannia aims to give a complete history of the genre, starting with some of the most academic and least humorous of prints – Dutch allegories of British politics, Oliver Cromwell crowning himself king (what else?) – and ending with some of the flattest works of contemporary art you could find. In between, you have a sense of the curators trudging through the archives to find the earliest cartoon strip, the first ass-kissing image, the original Napoleon chamber pot offering the owner a chance to pee on Boney's head.

Then the show wants to identify a distinct and robust strain in British art, starting with Hogarth. This is perfectly fair, though I suspect it wants to go further and present Hogarth as the father of British art per se. To achieve either, it has to be historic, scholarly, comprehensive – this is Tate Britain – yet it has sections on the lewd and crude so as not to appear embarrassingly swottish. And at the same time, it wants to be funny.

To this end, one of the best and yet most counterproductive tactics is to involve the Viz creators throughout the show. They have put together a special issue of the magazine, blown up to the size of a billboard, sending up the art world and all its denizens. Look out, in particular, for the letters page with its very acute send-up of one A Gormley.

They have also been commissioned to write the flannel panels for the 18th-century room. The paintings and prints here have been defanged by time. Who knows the significance of the bosomy woman showing off a mouthful of surprisingly sparkly teeth (porcelain gnashers: made in France and thus instantly political) without explanatory context. Step forward Roger Mellie (The Man on the Telly), foul-mouthed lush and notorious misogynist, plus his straight man, producer Tom.

At which point, you might as well draw a veil over the historic works, so completely are they upstaged by Viz's storyboards with their gleeful contemporary humour.

And the point is made by the comedian Harry Hill in the catalogue: you don't need to know about art to love it, whereas you may need to know something about John Major's career as an accountant and politician to understand why Steve Bell's immortal underpants are funny. Bell's apocalypse of Major's pants going up in flames on the Thames, with its nod to Turner's famous painting of the House of Commons on fire, is one of the most searing works in this show: a stunning conceit, a marvellous execution. Not incidentally, it is disappointing to have so little of Bell – or Ronald Searle, or Beerbohm, or HM Bateman, come to that – in this show.

For this is essentially a portrait of the graphic tradition. It has no room for a mordantly comic painting like Gainsborough's Mr and Mrs Andrews, he with his self-satisfied smirk, she with her sly, St Trinian's expression, posted like gatekeepers in front of the view that they own. Is it funny, is it art?; the two questions anyone might ask about the works in Rude Britannia both seem to be answered in the affirmative by this canvas. Perhaps they couldn't borrow it. Still, it is just up the road in the National Gallery.

In some senses, the exhibition fails in the way that humour itself can fail. It lacks surprise. It lacks brevity. It requires extensive explanation of context and detail. You had to be there, to use that deflating phrase. And artists, unlike comedians, do not have to be funny to make a living in any case. A punchline is never required.

But what Rude Britannia does present with real clarity is the outline of a particular tradition in British art. It is an art of the body, of corpulence and skinniness, flatulence and dropsy, of comic priggishness and irrepressible lust. It is the enormously billowing woman and the little half-pint man, the scrawny neck and the woodpecker drill of a nose. It is greed and lechery and gaping cakeholes, bulging trousers and breasts like buttocks, Bash Street shins and unfeasible genitals. It is Leo Baxendale's Beano, it is Phiz and Viz, it is there in modern masters such as Gerald Scarfe, Steve Bell and Martin Rowson. You can see it in Hogarth, of course. You can even see it in William Blake if you look. But, to me, it all goes back to Pitt and Fox and the caustic genius of James Gillray, most inventive of British comic artists. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 04 2010

The cheek of it ...

Will Self on an exhibition that celebrates the great British satirical impulse in art

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.

The inclusion of these latter is entirely just: British satiric art begins in adaptations of style by painters who saw themselves as fundamentally serious, and ends having come full circle. From Leonardo Da Vinci, via the "characters" of Wenceslaus Hollar, the tradition of exaggerating human physiognomies in order to express underlying characteristics was championed by William Hogarth, but, as his 1743 Characters or Caricatures makes clear, the derogatory intent – or otherwise – is in the collusion between the hand of the creator and the eye of the beholder. It remains there. I always considered the works of the so-called "Young British Artists" of the 1990s, as cartoon-like – in a good way: strong, arresting images in two and three dimensions, that were then captioned by their titles. Damien Hirst's shark-in-formaldehyde, entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living comes to mind, but Rude Britannia has other works on show, such as Lucas's Chicken Knickers, and Isaacs's I Can't Help the Way I Feel, that capture this satiric impulse equally well.

The former is indeed a plucked chicken affixed to the front of a woman's knickers (the woman is in them), and it would seem to me suitable to link the image to Thomas Rowlandson's notorious Cunnyseurs, a much-reproduced etching from the early 1800s, which shows four men mixing perversion with aesthetics. As for the latter, Isaacs's is a latex figure of such terrifyingly morbid obesity that he – she? it? – could also serve as a grotesque of 18th-century social saturnalia or, more particularly, as a model for the pendulous bare buttocks the bewigged toadies are attempting to kiss in the seminal Idol Worship or the Way to Preferment, a 1740 print which marks the arrival on the British scene of caricature specifically deployed to drag the haut down to the bas. Occasioned by anxieties about Horace Walpole's government and the eclipsing of monarchical by parliamentary government, far from seeming a remote or recondite image, the techniques by the anonymous creator of Idol can be seen to this day, on the editorial page of this very newspaper, deployed by such modern masters of the genre as Martin Rowson and Steve Bell.

To my mind, the presumption that satire is essentially light-hearted and antic is the first victim of this fine in-gathering of works. The curators of Rude Britannia contend in the catalogue that it may be difficult for us moderns to understand what the viewers of the early caricaturists and political cartoonists found in them to laugh at, but this is a mistaken view of satirical art, which may have humour as by-product, but whose main intent is quite as serious as that of any other genre – arguably more so. It's no coincidence that, in the 18th century, satire boomed with the establishment of modern parliamentary democracy, nor that it languished during the later Victorian era, during the mass-hypnosis of imperialist jingoism.

EB White said of Punch – originally launched in 1841, and subtitled the London Charivari – that it was "as British as vegetable marrow", and that it constituted a legislature in its own right. But while the very term "cartoon" owes its origin to a fine and serious bit of satire that ran in the early Punch – John Leech's Cartoon No 1 Substance and Shadow – the magazine soon degenerated into manufacturing the sort of whimsy even Victoria herself could stomach. Leech's "cartoon" was of the cartoons – in the original sense – for the opulent interior decorations intended for the new Houses of Parliament, being looked at by the emaciated London poor.

But attempting to shame politicians with caricature has always been a risky business. The caricaturist's experience all too often bears out the old adage that "politics is showbiz for ugly people", because – as Ralph Steadman once put it to me: "No matter how venal, corrupt and disgusting you make them look, they still call up wanting to buy the thing so they can hang it in their toilet." Steadman became so appalled by this narcissism of the grotesque, that during the 1997 elections he refused to draw any part of politicians but their legs, and – shades of 16th-century allegory – I was called in to provide the legs with extended captions. However, Steadman's plaint is nothing new – George IV was an enthusiastic collector of Gillray and Rowlandson – even though they often depicted him in all his corpulence.

Other cartoonist-laureates seem more tendentious to me: David Low, represented in this exhibition by a cartoon showing Aldous Huxley and Dick Sheppard (Anglican clergyman and founder of the Peace Pledge Union), terrifying Hitler and Mussolini with their limp-wristed antics, is habitually cited as the "greatest 20th-century British cartoonist". I have my doubts: I never liked Low's line, and more perhaps than in any other form of graphic art, line is absolutely crucial to caricature. Low's is too smooth for my taste, and I'm not so sure that he isn't hoisted above the shoulders of his peers precisely because of his early stand against appeasement – thus becoming the cartoon version of Churchill (although, arguably, Winnie was always his own best comic exaggeration).

Rude Britannia isn't all politics, though; there's room in the show for such sauciers as Aubrey Beardsley and Donald McGill, both of whom – in their very divergent ways – extolled the comedic potential of the male erection in those far off days before the synthesis of Viagra. Big dicks can always shrivel into nubbins of insignificance, and as such they are obvious stand-up stand-ins for phallocentric patriarchy. Looking at McGill beside Beardsley makes one realise not so much how filthy Beardsley's cocks are – with their exposed domes and writhing veins – but how equally subversive McGill's 1930s' seaside humour was, making a mockery of Britain's interwar flop-on by equipping its petit-bourgeois with such exaggerated symbolism.

Which brings us to the vexed question of sex: the curators of Rude Britannia ruefully admit to their collective masculinity, and they have attempted to represent female artists working in the satiric mode; however, with such notable exceptions as Sarah Lucas (and Sue Webster of Webster & Noble), there's great evidence here of an enduring male satiric supremacy. Such British mistresses of the craft that there are tend towards the whimsical end of the spectrum, and while not wishing to denigrate the fine work of Posy Simmonds or Beryl Cook, it altogether lacks the bite delivered by doggier types. (As for Alison Jackson, her look-a-like fake-celebrities doing daft things belong on teenage iPhones, so far as I'm concerned.) Personally, I don't see this as a cause for despair; on the contrary, in as much as satire is a concomitant of political and economic power, it's only to be expected that it should be practised by recusants of the moiety that possess these things: when we have as many female MPs and company directors as there are male, then too we will have satiric parity.

It could be argued that I'm being myopic here – and that Rude Britannia's curators are as well. There is a very important sense in which the graphic art that lasts is determined by non-obvious forms of acceptability. A case in point is George Cruikshank's huge emblematic painting The Worship of Bacchus (1860-62), a work allegorising the socially deleterious effects of alcohol, which the artist undertook when he himself took the pledge. Despite the undoubted magnificence of Bacchus, it wasn't popular in its day, and ended up damaged and languishing before being restored by the Tate at the time of the Millennium celebrations. Cruikshank's painting employs satiric means to distinctly worthy ends – but such agitprop is never reverenced, whether it's in support of feminism or temperance (and recall, the two were closely entwined in the 19th century).

Moreover, there's a great deal of satiric graphic art that by reason of its mode of production is necessarily ephemeral. This was true of the wood-blocked chapbooks that endured into the Victorian era, as radical agitators maintained primitive production methods to keep prices within range of working people. It's true also of the work of such graffiti artists as Banksy (significantly absent from the exhibition), whose greatest works are necessarily situational. It would be impossible to "show" Banksy's stencil of two rats mounting a rocket-propelled grenade attack on the Houses of Parliament, which depends for much of its effect on the fact it was stencilled on the embankment opposite Westminster.

Arguably, there's already something curiously dated about a show like Rude Britannia itself: it may well demonstrate the full compass of a tendency in British art. After all, if the satiric style begins with established naturalist painters exaggerating their hand, then surely when the likes of Jake and Dinos Chapman, or Grayson Perry – who are more than established in the fine art world – have their gallery-conceived works re-contextualised as avowedly satiric, the circle may have been closed. The early works of Hogarth and Reynolds were, in part, intended as "in jokes". Reynolds's Parody of Raphael's School of Athens, while depicting effete and ugly Grand Tourists cluttering up the salons of Italy, nonetheless provided him with an entrée to those self-same tourists' buying power. The same might be said of the Chapmans and Perry, whose works – whatever else they may be – are stratospherically expensive.

It may be that the rudest and most subversive parts of ever-rude Britannia are not really amenable to the gallery, occupying as they do the demented zoetrope of the web. Well, I'm no great fan of the web – it certainly doesn't do for graphic art what the mezzotint did – but if it does have a role to play, then the satiric one would appear to be ideal, demanding as it does an instantaneous response, coupled to a near-universal accessibility. Which brings us back up the stairs to confront our young novelist: it may be that satire is as easy for us Britons as lifting up an arse-cheek; it may be that that's what we do, but just try and imagine what it would be like if we stopped doing it? The best description of the Russians I ever heard was: imagine the Irish with an empire. This suggests the best possible description of the Dutch: imagine the British . . . without satire.

Rude Britannia: British Comic Art is at Tate Britain (020 7887 8825) from 9 June to 5 September 2010. A series of three BBC4 programmes, Rude Britannia, will begin on 14 June. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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