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The Australian National University

David Hansen curates Dempsey’s People: a folio of British Street Portraits 1824-1844, now showing at the National Portrait Gallery

Dr David Hansen, Associate Professor at the Centre for Art History and Art Theory, has curated Dempsey’s People: a folio of British Street Portraits 1824-1844, now showing at the National Portrait Gallery.

The exhibition presents 52 watercolours of the British urban poor, by painter, miniaturist and silhouettistist John Church Dempsey, who worked throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.

Most of the works are held by the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), Hobart, and were uncovered by Dr Hansen 20 years ago while he was working at TMAG as Senior Curator.

The rarely-seen portraits document the stories of town-criers, match-sellers, chimney-sweeps, street-food vendors, and numerous other characters populating the urban landscape of Regency-era and early Victorian Britain. However, the series is remarkable not only for the quality and close attention to detail, but also because most of the works are inscribed with their date and place of execution.

Dr Hansen explains, "Dempsey’s annotations save these people from the anonymity and generalisation of occupational, class or regional representation and restores to them the dignity of individual identity. Here we see members of the working class treated with the same respect that contemporary Royal Academy portraitists gave the aristocracy and gentry. Indeed, the artist himself is significant as representative of a whole class of non-academic journeyman or artisan painters whose contributions to the visual culture of Great Britain have long been neglected."


Dempsey’s People: a folio of British Street Portraits 1824-1844 is now on at the National Portrait Gallery until 22 October and is accompanied by a 262-page catalogue.

Image: John Dempsey, Whistling Billy of York


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