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John Dempsey’s Portraits

July 18, 2023
by the gentle author

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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

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Vicky Stewart permalink
    July 18, 2023

    There is excellent research about Black Charley here

  2. July 18, 2023

    Thank you – very interesting. I can’t work out what medium he used, but despite the odd proportions and perspectives, the faces are very well done.

  3. Marie Lenclos permalink
    July 18, 2023

    I love these sensitive and detailed portraits. They make you wonder about the personality of the characters whilst evoking traditions and trades of the past. I also love the way colour is used in these portraits. Subtle and understated (and sometimes detailed) settings create space for highlights of colour in the character or a detail of their trade. The oranges literally burst out of the picture in the first picture. These make me very happy!

  4. Mark permalink
    July 18, 2023

    Always fascinated by The Regency period.
    The portrait of Black Charley is so typical of the time. Lovely.

  5. Bernie permalink
    July 18, 2023

    These faces are surely real portraits of real people! Marvellous!

  6. Gillian Tindall permalink
    July 18, 2023

    I entirely agree about the patient expressions on many of these people’s faces – at once quietly hopeful, but trying not to show it too much, and also resigned to perpetial mild disappointment.
    As seen in the faces of many Big Issue sellers today.

  7. July 18, 2023

    These are wonderful, I would love to see a book of them.

  8. July 18, 2023

    Yes, the faces are so realistic and the artist captures the essence of his subjects so well.

    I can’t help wondering how the collection ended up in Tasmania.

  9. July 18, 2023

    I love this series. Take a second look at the gardener. Oh, those gigantic capable hands. And the way each rose looks like it took hours to render and look so botanically perfect. I so enjoy the way the artist has depicted the feet/shoes of the subjects — making the characters look a bit like they might lift off and sail away. And yet their faces and bodies are so stalwart and sturdy. This is a remarkable series of images, full of fascination and contradiction.

    If I passed the doorway to the boot-maker, I would NOT be able to resist a visit inside. The way he has festooned his doorstep is so compelling……a “must” visit. And the gentleman himself looks like a master story teller, impressively garbed in a lovely vest. A festival of details.

    Thank you, GA.

  10. Bill permalink
    July 18, 2023

    These are beautiful. The perspective of the watercress man’s basket is very successful. These portraits convey immediacy and vitality. The artist has a wonderful understanding of patterns. The garden in Yarmouth is very pretty; makes one wonder if this man ever painted china. His pictures of blind men are very affecting.

    What else did John Dempsey paint?

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