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John Dempsey’s Street Portraits

November 9, 2018
by the gentle author

Fifty Years Porter, Charing Cross, 1824

It is my delight to present the first London publication of John Dempsey’s street portraits from the eighteen-twenties held in the collection of the Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery. Orginally attributed to George Scharf, they were identified as the work of John Dempsey (1802-74) by curator David Hansen who discovered a folio of fifty-one portraits in 1996 in a drawer labelled ‘U’ for unknown.

Dempsey was an itinerant jobbing artist without any formal training who created ‘Likenesses of Public Characters’ in London and the provincial cities of England, as he travelled around in search of commissions for portrait miniatures and silhouettes. No record exists of any exhibitions and in 1845, he was declared bankrupt. Yet his achievement is unique and enduring.

In spite of Dempsey’s unconventional perspective and disproportionate figures, he created portraits full of humanity that evoke the presence of street people and the outcast poor with compassion and vitality. These are portraits of individuals and they are full of life. As an itinerant artist in an age that did not distinguish between street traders and beggars, he dignified his fellow travellers through his portraits. He understood their lives because he shared their precarious existence.

When I first saw these pictures, I was startled by how familiar they appeared to me and I assumed this was because I have spent so much time looking at prints of The Cries of London. But then I realised that I recognised the demeanour and expression of John Dempsey’s portraits because I see them, their crew and their kin, every day as I walk around the streets of London two centuries later.

Sharp, Orange Man, Colchester, 1823

Watercress, Salisbury

Black Charley, Bootmaker, Norwich, 1823

Muffin Man

Mary Croker,  Mat Woman, Colchester, 1823

Sam’l Hevens, Old Jew, 1824

Charles M’Gee, Crossing Sweeper, London, c 1824

Old Bishop, Pieman, Harwich

Woolwich, 1824

Match Woman, Woolwich, 1824

Mark Custings (commonly called Blind Peter) and his boy, Norwich, 1823

Copeman, Gardener, Yarmouth

A Bill Poster, 1825

The Doorkeeper, Royal Managerie, Exeter ‘Change, (London) 1824

Images reproduced courtesy of Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery

You may also like to take a look at

John Thomas Smith’s Remarkable Beggars

Luke Clennell’s London Melodies

26 Responses leave one →
  1. Molasses permalink
    November 9, 2018

    Beautiful — can almost visualize their personalities.

    ‘Sharp, Orange Man’ — in his basket, was he selling orange and bread (or was the orange an advertisement for marmalade)?

  2. November 9, 2018

    At 94, wobbly legs, housebound agnostic atheist in presque ideal care home……wake at approx four am…….but some divine being led me to GENTLE AUTHOR…..literally have no words

  3. Lesley Ward permalink
    November 9, 2018

    The pictures are a delight to study, and quite different from other portraits of the time. Are there any images of gingerbread sellers in the collection?

  4. Annelise Goodsir permalink
    November 9, 2018

    Oh these are quite wonderful ! Thank you for sharing them.

  5. Paulne permalink
    November 9, 2018

    I loved poring over these images -thank you !

  6. Greg Tingey permalink
    November 9, 2018

    They almost step off the page (screen) don’t they?
    And the clothing & background diversity of them – some obvioulsy (relatively) prosperous & in business, others scraping a living, close to the bottom.

  7. November 9, 2018

    Very interesting images that relate to clear individuals and often their names and location.In some ways they seem more influential than, say, Francis Wheatley.

    There doesn’t seem to be an advert of the book on the Tasmanian website. Is it being published here? It would surely be engaging!

  8. Vicky Stewart permalink
    November 9, 2018

    My favourite is Black Charley because of his beautifully drawn face. I had to enlarge it to take a closer look.

  9. Jake permalink
    November 9, 2018

    Great attention to detail,note the Porter with bandaged gouty/ulcerated leg having to wear a soft slipper,to make his vigil bearable.

  10. Peter Arney permalink
    November 9, 2018

    Marvellous, exceptional pictures, not just beautiful but worthy of careful study. If there are 51 of them, we have a ready-made book!

    Surely, even in this digital age, some craft printer could make a wonderful job of printing these on quality paper – perhaps with context comments by the Gentle Author?

    I for one would buy it.

  11. Judith Lento permalink
    November 9, 2018

    These images are incredible and moving. Rendered with both painterly skill and a certain naivety, they bring the soul of these individuals to life especially the blind people. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Catherine Howard-Dobson permalink
    November 9, 2018

    These are wonderfully evocative images, I would love to see them printed in a book of some kind.

  13. Rupert Bumfrey permalink
    November 9, 2018

    Good afternoon Judy Sumray, do you view via an ipad or similar tablet?

  14. Anne Myserian permalink
    November 9, 2018

    I really enjoyed looking at these. The faces are captivating.

  15. Gayle Thorsen permalink
    November 9, 2018

    I see what you mean about encountering these faces on today’s streets. They are rendered with such individuality and humanity.

  16. November 9, 2018

    Wonderful paintings. Exactly as you say, we see these same faces every day in our city.

  17. Laura Williamson permalink
    November 9, 2018

    These are quite wonderful, he has put such care into capturing the faces. It looks like a couple at least may have had advanced cataract; I had mine “done” earlier this year (at a fairly young age) and they were not “visible” but I was really struggling. I can only wonder at how difficult it must have been for others to cope on the ill lit streets of London with no hope of improvement.

    Thank you GA and *waves* to Judy Sumray-so glad you too have discovered this wonderful blog!

  18. Gary Arber permalink
    November 9, 2018

    The eyes seem to stare right at you, you get the impression that they do not like you very much.
    Fantastic work !

  19. Hetty Startup permalink
    November 9, 2018

    These are quite extraordinary. I sent them on to my brother who lives in Essex and he thought they were great, too.

  20. Saba permalink
    November 9, 2018

    I valued these paintings for their lack of sentimentality. The tattered clothing, the shoes with holes, and especially the expressions on the faces — the artist had no romantic notions about the streets of London. If I could read anyone’s mind — but, of course, I cannot — I would say that the poor lived with the realization that life’s circumstances can trap even the most refined soul.

    When you, GA, say you see the same faces in London today, I am not sure what you mean. Those are British faces, so perhaps you see a resemblance. Or, maybe you see the diversity. Do you see people who look equally resigned? I hope not.

  21. pauline taylor permalink
    November 9, 2018

    Wonderful, I wonder if more can be found out about the two people from Colchester depicted here, Sharp, the orange man, and Mary Croker, the mat woman. As the painting are dated 1823 it may be possible to identify them, and I would love to display them in my shop, I know that many customers would be fascinated. I wonder if any of the other paintings relate to Colchester, I shall really enjoy following this up so thank you GA for alerting me to the existence of these treasures.

  22. Frances Happ permalink
    November 9, 2018

    Those faces! Thank you.

  23. Carolyn Badcock permalink
    November 11, 2018

    Judy Sumray’s comments leave me speechless too, gentle author. How superb that your blog can so reach out to any one of us, even at 94 with these magnificent studies of folk at work.
    1000 Thank-yous from Australia.

  24. Mike Puddephatt permalink
    November 12, 2018

    Love these pictures. Bring the period to life.

  25. November 14, 2018

    These are so affectionate – wonderful images, how on earth did you find them!

  26. Bernard Lewis permalink
    November 30, 2018

    Wow! Wonderful.

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