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The Hand-Writing upon the Wall.

  • Object type

  • Museum number


  • Title (object)

    • The Hand-Writing upon the Wall.
  • Description

    Napoleon presides at a feast with Josephine seated on his left. A sumptuous dessert is on the table, with dishes moulded to represent English buildings, &c. Napoleon has begun to devour 'St James's', but has dropped his fork, and looks round in horror at the words 'Mene Mene, Tekel, Upharsin' (l.) at which the arm of Jehovah points. This emerges from clouds, the other arm holds over the head of Napoleon a pair of scales; one, inscribed 'Vive le Roi', contains a crown and outweighs the other, 'Despotism', which flies in the air, spilling the contents, shackles and a bonnet rouge. The room is lined with grenadiers at attention, with drawn sabres and pistols in their belts; they are partly obscured by clouds, but their eyes are turned to the writing on the wall. This is also seen by three grenadiers who stand rigidly behind Napoleon's chair, their sabres dripping blood, their eyes turned to the left. Of those at the feast only Napoleon has seen the message, but the general on his right. looks with alarm at his master who has overturned three bottles of wine. The others are absorbed in food or women. Josephine, grossly fat, drinks avidly, spilling her wine. Behind her chair stand three slim and meretricious young women, looking down at her: they are scantily clad, with hair arranged in the French manner in snaky ringlets. They are Napoleon's three sisters, Elisa, Pauline, and Caroline.
    The upper end of the table stretches across the foreground. On the extreme left. Arthur O'Connor, the only civilian, ogles a lady, holding her chin and offering her a dish of 'Pommes d'Am[our]', while she holds up a tumbler of wine. In front of him is a decanter labelled 'Maidstone'. Between this lady and the general on Napoleon's r. is a grotesque officer greedily devouring a large fragment of the 'Tower de Londres'. An officer (r.) ogles a woman with whom he drinks wine. All the women have the patched faces that in these prints indicate dissoluteness. Two of the officers have the plucked scalp of the Frenchman in BMSat 9960. Before Napoleon is a dish containing the 'Bank of England', flying a tricolour flag. The back of his chair is decorated with a carved eagle or vulture whose eyes are turned to the fatal message. Before Josephine is a dish inscribed 'Prune Monsieur' containing two plums; beside it are two bottles of 'Maraschino', one overturned. The decollated head of a bishop fills a dish inscribed 'Oh de Roast Beef of Old England'. Wine, fruit, and jelly-glasses fill the spaces on the table. August 1803
    Hand-coloured etching and aquatint.


  • Producer name

  • School/style

  • Date

    • 1803
  • Production place

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 253 millimetres
    • Width: 354 millimetres
  • Inscriptions

      • Inscription Content

        Lettered with title, artist's name and publication line 'Js Gillray. invt & ft./Pubd Augt 24th 1803, by Js Gillray, 27, St James's Street.London.'
  • Curator's comments

    (Description and comment from M.Dorothy George, 'Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the British Museum', VIII, 1947)
    An invasion print, see BMSat 10008. Napoleon boasted in June that he needed only three days of fog to be master of London, of Parliament, of the Bank of England (see BMSat 10131, &c). Sorel, 'L'Europe et la rév. fr.' vi. 310. For O'Connor and Maidstone see BMSat 10082, &c. For Belshazzar's Feast cf. BMSat 9171, 10395, 11288. G. Cruikshank's 'The Hero's Return', 28 Feb. 1813, may be regarded as a sequel.
    Grego, 'Gillray', p. 302 (copy). Wright and Evans, No. 281. Reprinted, 'G.W.G.', 1830. Broadley, i. 188 f. Reproduced, Fuchs, i. 164; Grand-Carteret, 'Napoléon', No. 94; Dayot, 'Rév. fr.', p. 485. Copy by Fairholt, Wright, 'Caricature Hist. of the Georges' (reproduced, Cooper, p. 26).

    The biblical reference is to Belshazzar's Feast, Daniel , V, 25-28: And this is the writing that was inscribed: mene, mene, tekel, and parsin. This is the interpretation of the matter: mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; tekel, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.
    A print by Henry Hudson of Rembrandt's Belshazzar's Feast, then in the collection of Thomas Fullwood, published in 1785 (see 1868,0808.2658), is likely to have been Gillray's inspiration for this composition, and for the figure of Napoleon in particular. He had also used it in February 1798 for a print depicting the Duke of Norfolk's republican toast at Fox's birthday dinner at the Crown and Anchor (BM Satires 9168).

    Marcel Roux, compiler of the De Vinck catalogue, suggested that the print alludes to the Cadoudal conspiracy, supported by the British government, to assassinate Napoleon. Georges Cadoudal had left London only three days before the print was published.


  • Bibliography

    • BM Satires 10072 bibliographic details
    • De Vinck 1909-1967 7716 bibliographic details
  • Location

    Not on display (British XVIIIc Mounted Roy)

  • Exhibition history

    2015 Feb-Aug, BM, Rm 90, Bonaparte and the British

  • Subjects

  • Associated names

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date


  • Department

    Prints & Drawings

  • Registration number


Napoleon presides at a feast with Josephine seated on his left.  A sumptuous dessert is on the table, with dishes moulded to represent English buildings, &c.   Napoleon has begun to devour 'St James's', but has dropped his fork, and looks round in horror



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