“Rude Britannia” at the Tate could have been a good exhibition. British artists have always excelled at rudeness, in particular comic rudeness, in all the meanings of the word “rude”—impoliteness, impropriety, indecency. The British have a national gift for being offensive.

All the classics of British rudeness are here: the great eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century caricaturists, Hogarth, Gillray, and Rowlandson; the vulgar Ally Sloper; and the exquisite indecencies of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations to Lysistrata from the Victorian era. Here too is the work of Henry Mayo Bateman and William Heath Robinson, two of the great British cartoonists of the early twentieth century, and of Donald McGill, the artist of the “naughty” seaside postcards immortalized by George Orwell. From our own time are the savage satirical Gerald Scarfe, cheeky Beryl Cook, the comic book Viz,...


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