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John Dempsey’s Portraits

February 28, 2020
by the gentle author

Fifty Years Porter, Charing Cross, 1824

It is my delight to present John Dempsey’s street portraits from the eighteen-twenties held in the collection of the Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery. Originally 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

14 Responses leave one →
  1. Prue Briggs permalink
    February 28, 2020

    Wonderful paintings of old London

  2. Rhianwen permalink
    February 28, 2020

    Wonderful. They are amazingly fresh, aren’t they? How did you come to know about them – did the curator contact you?

  3. Penny Gardner permalink
    February 28, 2020

    Nasty, brutish and short but we managed to get this far. What would they think of us now? Gods and Fairies? We don’t deserve them.

  4. February 28, 2020

    I always enjoy how your observations and the images you provide seem to dance back and forth and give us rich compost for thought — and insight. In this case, my mind got caught on “U for Unknown”…..and how you have literally brought these amazingly descriptive images out of the drawer to share with us. Unknown no longer. So much depth here. A bonanza for the History of Costume people. A thousand details to enjoy. Note the “thousand mile stare” of the Orange man.
    And the huge hands of the bootmaker, and the glimpse of his workspace. Just wonderful.
    (I would enjoy knowing what the original SIZE of these were.)
    Thank you GA for shining a light.

  5. Emily Johnson permalink
    February 28, 2020

    Thank you for these, they are wonderful! The faces particularly are beautifully observed, as if the artist has worked accurately from life. In several cases the figures have the bundled up look of people wearing all their clothes at once, which street sellers would probably have done in cold weather, but I have never seen it in an illustration before.

  6. Gregg permalink
    February 28, 2020

    Absolutely brilliant collection. Thanks. Not sure about the guy in ‘Woolwich 1824’. Looks like he’s just had a good/bad night out.

  7. Linda Granfield permalink
    February 28, 2020

    Absolutely thrilling! So ‘contemporary’–when I saw the first image come on screen I thought it was done by an artist of today! Use of colour is terrific.

    I can imagine Michael Rosen coming up with poetry to match these vivid depictions for a publication. There’s something so ‘Then/Now’ about these images.

    I agree–can you devote another blog entry to the story of how you came upon these?
    A treat! Thank you.

  8. Jill Wilson permalink
    February 28, 2020

    Yes – wonderful portraits worth a detailed look which makes one wonder what their back stories were…

    And how they came upon their injuries. What has happened to the Porter’s foot which is obviously too painful to put into a normal shoe? And Copeman the gardener’s knee looks like it is bandaged.

    And how did others like Charlie Mcgee and Woolwich man damage their eyes? And how did Blind Peter lose his sight?

    I’d love to know!

  9. Saba permalink
    February 28, 2020

    Beautifully done paintings. Size? Medium? The artist connected deeply with his subjects’ humanity and invited his viewers to consider both their struggles and their strengths. I welcome the inclusion of Jewish and black subjects. There’s ironic content here — the subjects have struggled but claim great knowledge leading to nobility.

  10. February 29, 2020

    Gorgeous Vintage Paintings with the people selling the goods!! I very much enjoy these!!?????????

  11. March 1, 2020

    Very much appreciated the images. Started to think about the individuals. Most were likely illiterate and in survival mode. Wondering what were their aspirations, or was that even a luxury.

    Watching a documentary on the industrious residents in Mumbai’s largest slum — living cheek by jowl and animals in close proximity — it occurred that perhaps this was similar in spirit to an earlier London — captured in these images.

  12. March 1, 2020

    Brilliant. Thank you for this article.

  13. March 1, 2020

    The way he keenly observes detail is just extraordinary. Especially feet: mismatched shoes, edema in one leg, a bandaged knee, a big toe sticking out. The life of each person is read in the condition of their feet.

  14. Chris Eccleston permalink
    April 28, 2020

    There is a beautifully produced book of these paintings. “Dempsey’s People A Folio of British Street Portraits 1824-1844” isbn 978-0-9953975-1-4 published in Australia by the National Portrait Gallery,Canberra and the Tasmanian Museum Art Gallery.

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