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Bird of prey: Gerald Scarfe portrayed Mrs Thatcher as a "Ptorydactyl" in 1989 

The funny thing about comic art is that it is rarely comic (the same is true of most self-proclaimed humorous novels too). Ernst Gombrich, the doyen of art historians, once said: "I have spent a lot of time on the history of caricature, but hardly ever laughed, and barely smiled." But then Gombrich was Germanic. And that highlights another oddity: comic art is a predominantly British genre. Other countries have a tradition of pictorial humour — the Dutch with their bawdy tavern scenes, the French with the caricatures of Louis-Léopold Boilly and the satires of Honoré Daumier, the Germans have the graphic excoriations of George Grosz and the Italians the grotesques of Leonardo. But no other country can justifiably claim that its comic art is not just a true expression of national character but an integral part of its artistic and cultural history too.

Rude Britannia: British Comic Art at Tate Britain (until 5 September) is a lively examination of our artistic funny bone. Although it could have started with medieval misericords and gargoyles, the exhibition covers the period from 1600 to the present and has sections chosen by the likes of Harry Hill, Gerald Scarfe and the Viz cartoonists. What it offers is a running commentary on our changing political and social mores told through prints and postcards, Toby jugs and contemporary installations. 

One of the reasons comic art is our national art is because our indigenous tradition is relatively young. In the broadest of terms, it emerged alongside the new conception of Britishness that was best symbolised by the Act of Union in 1707. The resulting Britishness was characterised by the notion of humour, freedom of speech and a lack of respect for authority. There was a vigorous print tradition already in existence (the Civil War had spawned numerous allegorical and allusive popular images) but it was Hogarth who made humour part of our foundation myth. He suited the new John Bullishness perfectly: we may not have had Renaissance Old Masters but in him we had an irreverent, red-of-cheek, French-baiting young master. He became the original BritArt father figure.

While Hogarth saw himself as having noble aims and his paintings of "modern moral subjects" as representing a new type of art, others saw first and foremost the humour. A strain of British art descended from his perceived image — from James Gillray via Heath Robinson through Donald McGill's saucy seaside postcards to the hyper-aware and referential YBAs (Young British Artists), such as the Chapman brothers.

The two main targets of comic art — politics and society — are both examined here. It is a truism that it is the biggest, most divisive characters that elicit the most vigorous responses from artists: Napoleon and George IV; Pitt and Fox; Hitler; Thatcher and Blair. The stronger the feelings they aroused, the stronger the images they inspired. There is, in historical terms, a pleasing co-dependence between, say, Gillray and Pitt, David Low and Hitler, Fluck and Law and Mrs Thatcher. While Disraeli may not have needed caricaturists to bolster his self-image, being lampooned is one way for modern politicians to know they have arrived — luckily for them they are spared much of the scatological coarseness to which their forbears were subjected.

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