The Hand-Writing upon the Wall
Department: Decorative Art
Accession Number: 2004.1298
This satirical engraving, entitled 'The Hand-Writing upon the Wall', is by the highly regarded caricaturist James Gillray (1756-1815). An inscription in the bottom corner indicates it was originally published by the artist on the 24th August 1803, at 27 St James's Street, London. This was the premises of Hannah Humphrey, 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 engravers' copyright. This enabled them to have the sole right to reproduce their images. This became known as 'Hogarth's Law' and enabled the 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 large scale compositions coloured by hand.
Gillray produced many satirical prints depicting Napoleon and matters relating to the Napoleonic Wars. This print was published in the first year of the war and is thought to be Gillray's response to Napoleon's claim that he needed only three days of fog to capture London.
The print is based upon the biblical passage of the same name. The passage describes a feast held by the ill-fated Belshazzar, King of Babylon, who was punished by God for drinking wine from goblets stolen from the temple in Jerusalem. In this passage the words 'Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin' were written onto a wall by a mysterious hand. The inscription was translated as 'God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians'.
It is fitting that these words also appear in the top left corner of Gillray's composition, foretelling the demise of Napoleon's empire. Napoleon's horrified pose mirrors that of Belshazzar in Rembrandt's painting, Belshazzar's Feast.
The feast itself is composed of a number of dessert ices, each in the form of an English landmark, including the Tower of London, St James's Palace and the Bank of England. Other dishes include a plate on which a head sits, labelled 'Oh de Roast Beef of Old England' and several platters of fruit. Sitting next to Napoleon is his wife, Josephine, who is depicted as being comically overweight and drinking heavily. Behind the pair stand Napoleon's three sisters, Elisa, Pauline and Caroline. They are rather scantily dressed. They are wearing small black patches on their faces, used to cover up smallpox scars and other blemishes.
During the later 1700s and early 1800s, dessert would typically follow the two main courses. However, sweet dishes, including pies and custards, were often included alongside savoury foods during the previous courses. Desserts were a fine affair in wealthy homes and the table would be lavishly decorated. Beautifully decorated, expensive porcelain services would be used, comprising a wide range of serving plates and dishes. Dishes would include meringues, ice creams, fruit conserves, jellies and traditional sweetmeats. Ices, mousse and creamed jellies were often set in decorative moulds, similar to those seen on Napoleon's table in this image.
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.