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'The hand-writing upon the wall'

6 of 7 portraits of Arthur O'Connor

'The hand-writing upon the wall', by and published by James Gillray, published 24 August 1803 - NPG D12820 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

'The hand-writing upon the wall'

by and published by James Gillray
hand-coloured etching and aquatint, published 24 August 1803
10 in. x 14 in. (253 mm x 355 mm) plate size; 10 3/4 in. x 14 7/8 in. (272 mm x 378 mm) paper size
Purchased, 1947
Reference Collection
NPG D12820


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  • James Gillray (1756-1815), Caricaturist. Artist associated with 881 portraits, Sitter in 7 portraits.

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In developing his caricature as a bitingly effective political tool which worked on a number of levels, Gillray often made mock-heroic reference to biblical stories and high art. This invasion-scare print of August 1803 was made in response to Napoleon's recent boast that he needed only three days of fog to be master of London. The Emperor, a grossly fat Josephine and their coterie, including Napoleon's three scantily-clad sisters, devour a feast of iced English buildings. Behind the Emperor stand three grenadiers with bloodied sabres, their heavily shadowed eyes drawn to the sky where a pair of scales and an ominous message signal that the days of Napoleon's kingdom are numbered. Drawn from the biblical story of the Feast of Belshazzar, Napoleon's pose is adapted directly from the King of Babylon in Rembrandt's painting of the same subject, now at the National Gallery.