Substitutes for Bread:-Or- Right Honorables, Saving the Loaves, & Dividing the Fishes
Material and Medium: engraving on paper
Department: Decorative Art
Accession Number: 2004.1291
This satirical engraving, 'Substitutes for Bread', is by the highly regarded caricaturist James Gillray (1756-1815). An inscription in the bottom corner indicates it was originally published on 24th December, 1795. Hannah Humphrey, the owner of a shop selling prints on New Bond Street in London, acted as Gillray's publisher. Prior to the reproduction of satirical prints in newspapers and magazines, establishments like Humphrey's enabled the wealthy to purchase these images direct from the publisher.
Satirical printmaking became popular in the mid 1700s. This is largely attributed to William Hogarth, an artist and engraver. As a result of Hogarth's lobbying, an act was passed in 1735 to protect the copyright of engravers' work. This gave them the sole right to reproduce their images. This became known as 'Hogarth's Law' and enabled artists to gain a fair return for their work. Over the next few decades, the number of prints being produced increased dramatically. These were often caricatures of public figures, reactions to current events, and political or social commentaries. Prints were originally sold as small cards, later in a magazine format or as large scale compositions coloured by hand.
The scene is centred on a dining table, around which five men are eating a meal composed of coins. Even the fish, which are the only recognisable foodstuff, have coin scales. To the far left, a bowl is inscribed "Royal Turtle Soup", a popular delicacy among the wealthy at this time, though this too is filled with coins.
Two notices are attached to the back wall. The first reads "Proclamation for a General Fast, in order to avert the impending Famine". The second reads "Substitutes for Bread" under which is a list of indulgent foods, "Venison, Roast Beef, Poultry, Turtle Soup, Fish boild in wine, Ragouts, Jellies &c, Burgundy, Champaign, Tokay, &c, &c". These are all popular and indulgent dishes of the 1700s.
Through the window, it is possible to see that a number of people have gathered in protest, holding signs reading "Petition from the Starving Swine" and "Grant us the Crumbs which drop from your Table". At the front of the image sit two sacks, labelled "Product of New Taxes upon John Bulls Property" and "Secret Service Money". A basket holding loaves is labelled "Potatoe [sic] Bread to be given in Charity".
An increasing population, bad harvests, heavy land taxes, high rates of inflation and diversion of funds into the war resulted in the price of grain and bread increasingly dramatically in the late 1700s. The price of a loaf almost doubled. This had a dramatic impact on the general population, as bread was a staple food of the working classes.
Bills were passed in Parliament to encourage bakers to produce 'mixed' bread, containing no more than two thirds wheat flour. Darker loaves containing rye, bran and barley were ill received by the general population despite their cheaper price as they were used to whiten bread.
Bakers began to mix their flour with other cereals and large amounts of salt. Bean, pea and potato meal were also used, hence the basket of potato bread in this image. In order to meet the continuing demand for white bread, some disreputable bakers began to mix flour with inedible substances, such as soap, lime, chalk or alum (a mineral). This not only produced loaves of a lighter colour, but also increased their size. The Bread Regulation Bill was passed in 1792 to make the adulteration of bread and flour illegal.
These practices are criticised in a London publication dating to 1795 entitled 'The Crying Frauds of the London Markets'. The author comments "[t]he constant use of alum, even though the daily quantity of be small, cannot fail to be detrimental to health, particularly of infants, who chiefly are fed with bread, before they begin to eat animal food".
The full title of this engraving is 'Substitutes for Bread:-Or- Right Honorables, Saving the Loaves, & Dividing the Fishes'. Beneath the title is the following inscription, 'To the Charitable Committee, for reducing the high price of Corn, by providing Substitutes for Bread in their own Families, this representation of the Hard shifts made by the Framers & Signers of the Philanthropic Agreement, is most respectfully dedicated'.
The print appears to be aimed at mocking the 'Members Agreement' of 1795. The Parliamentary record of this motion describes how members of the House of Commons Committee agreed to reduce their families' consumption of wheat by eating only mixed bread. It was also agreed that, if necessary, the use of wheat flour for pastry would be prohibited and its use for other culinary purposes strictly limited until the price had reduced. Members were given the opportunity to sign a document declaring that they would stick to this agreement, though this was optional rather than enforced. The sumptuous and expensive foods listed on the notice as substitutes for bread is poking fun at the continuing lavish tastes of the wealthy during a time when the general population was suffering. It also seems to suggest that the Members' Agreement was no more than an empty gesture.
As well as offering an insight into the political climate of the day, contemporary prints can also offer a great deal of information relating to the way objects were used and how tables were laid.
The diners are using the two tine forks that are typical of the 1700s. The knives are of the characteristic scimitar shape with long, curved blades and rounded tips that could be used for scooping up sauce. The handles are a style known as pistol grip (or pistol haft), a typical feature of the time. The knives have a hump on their back, which was often added to give the blade extra strength after 1720. The knives are clearly marked with the motif of a dagger, which was used to indicate that blades were made in London.
A spoon is laid on the table with the back of the bowl facing upward. The spoon is a style known as the Hanoverian. They were placed on the table with the outside of the bowl facing upwards to ensure that the hallmarks struck on the back of the stem were visible. Spoons began to be placed with the back of the bowl facing downward after the 1730s, though the alternative practice persisted for some time.
An array of other objects are being used, including sauce boats, a muffineer for ground spice or pepper, a salt with a ladle shaped spoon (prior to 1780 straight spoons were used with salts) and wine bottles complete with labels indicating the contents: Champaign, Burgundy and Port, popular drinks at the dinner tables of wealthy homes.
This work forms part of the Bill Brown Collection. Supported by The Art Fund, Heritage Lottery Fund and the Friends of Sheffield Galleries & Museums Trust.
Find out more…
You can read about the Bread Regulation Bill and other acts of Parliament passed in the 1700s by visiting the BOPCRIS (British Official Publications Collaborative Reader Information Service) website: