- Museum number
Belshazzar's Feast; figures gathered around a table, on which are laid, a candelabra, drinking vessels and plates, all looking to right, some pointing to a hand and inscription lit by a candle high on the wall, behind the table set in niches on the wall are various sculptures and to right an arched doorway leading into a room with domed ceiling, in the foreground, servants filling vessels with food and drink
Brush drawing in grey wash, with pen and brown ink
- Production date
Height: 310 millimetres
Width: 425 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- See K. Sloan, 'Noble Art', BM exh. cat. 2000, no. 158 (text below):
This drawing and three others in the Museum are the only known drawings by Richard Byron who was, however, a prolific etcher (cat. 159). He was a younger son of William 4th Lord Byron (cat. 55, 1881,0611.134), educated at Christ Church, Oxford from 1743-1750 and later Rector of Haughton le Skerne, Durham. His sister Isabella took lessons from Joseph Goupy, which he may have shared, and she also etched (see cat.159). Many of the next generation of Byrons were also amateurs, including John and Frederick George Byron, who were both talented caricaturists.
The three other drawings by Byron in the Museum came from the same source: two are landscapes of picturesque thatched mills and barns in hilly landscapes with figures on the road or working nearby. They are drawn with brush and wash and one has the details picked out in pen and ink, in a manner reminiscent of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish artists and may be related to works by Tillemans that his father commissioned for Newstead Abbey or drawings by Tillemans or his father in the collection there. The third drawing is a pen and ink and wash copy of an allegorical drawing or painting by Carlo Maratta inscribed: 'iacentem picturam annibal carraccius e. tenebris suo lumine restituit et ad apollinis ac pallidis aedem perduxit'. It depicts the artist Annibale Carracci bringing the art of Painting out of the darkness and restoring her to Apollo's temple. No reference to such a painting has been found. In the 17th and 18th centuries Annibale's Farnese ceiling was considered to be an artistic achievement equal to Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling and Raphael's frescos in the Vatican Stanza.
Joseph Goupy, who gave lessons to Byron's sister Isabella, Countess of Carlisle, painted mainly in oils and gouache and also etched and taught Isabella by setting her to copy the works of Italian old masters. The Reverend Byron appears to have mainly learnt to draw by studying paintings, drawings and prints by Italian and Dutch old masters. The composition of Belshazzar's Feast demonstrates a very ambitious attempt to paint a historical subject of a complexity being attempted by few contemporary professional artists. Rembrandt's well-known painting of this subject (National Gallery) was in the collection of the Earl of Derby by 1736 where it was copied by Tillemans, but a different composition of the same subject, also then attributed to Rembrandt, passed through several English collections in the second half of the century and was issued as a mezzotint by Henry Hudson in 1785. The subject of Belshazzar's Feast may have been inspired by Rembrandt, but Byron's composition appears to be his own interpretation, with dozens of figures drinking and praising their pagan gods from the golden vessels pillaged from the Temple in Jerusalem. It depicts the moment when writing appeared on the wall with the message that the King had been weighed in the balances and found wanting; Babylonia fell the next day and Belshazzar was slain.
The Byron family's admiration for Rembrandt was particularly evident in Richard and Isabella's etchings and was a taste shared by many of their contemporaries, including the collectors Cracherode and Payne Knight. The latter probably owned the four works by Byron in the collection. He may have acquired them from Byron himself or possibly from his great-nephew the poet, who became friendly with Payne Knight when they realized that they shared their unpopular criticism of Lord Elgin's removal of the Parthenon marbles. In 1814 Payne Knight was made a Trustee of the British Museum and shortly afterwards made a new will leaving his collection to the British Museum, where it would join those of his late friends Charles Townley and the Rev. Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode (d.1799). Payne Knight not only admired Rembrandt and other Dutch old masters, he was also a promoter of history painting amongst contemporary British artists, particularly Benjamin West and Richard Westall. The Payne Knight provenance of Byron's drawings has not been recognized until now - regarded as minor works by an unknown and obviously unskilled artist, they had probably been weeded out from the more important works in Payne Knight's 1824 bequest of 9 volumes containing 1,144 drawings. No inventory was made of them until 1845, by which time considerable sorting and re-attributions had taken place.
In 2013 further drawings by Byron came to light within an album - also including some of Byron's etchings - compiled in 1877 by the artist's great-granddaughter Fanny Lucy Byron (1839-1904) for her father (Byron's grandson), the Rev. John Byron (1804-1878). The drawings include a self-portrait and a portrait of Byron's son, Rear Admiral Richard Byron, as a child, both initialled by the artist. This album was in the collection of the Hon. Christopher Lennox-Boyd.
Literature: Raines, 'Tillemans', p. 28, fn. 44; Michael Clarke and Nicholas Penny, eds., "The Arrogant Connoisseur: Richard Payne Knight", exh. Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, 1982; James Fergusson (book dealer), "Two Magpies", catalogue, 2013
- Not on display
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- This item has an uncertain or incomplete provenance for the years 1933-45. The British Museum welcomes information and assistance in the investigation and clarification of the provenance of all works during that era.
Not known how acquired.
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number