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Calling all family history buffs

3 July 2017

Copeman, gardener, Great Yarmouth by John Dempsey
Copeman, gardener, Great Yarmouth by John Dempsey

The National Portrait Gallery is calling on family history enthusiasts and amateur historians to tell it more about the people in its new show, Dempsey’s People: A folio of British street portraits from 1824-1844.

Dempsey’s People brings together 52 watercolour portraits of British street people painted by little-known travelling artist John Dempsey. After almost 20 years of research, curator Dr David Hansen has identified 25 of the subjects, but is keen to find more information on the characters in Dempsey’s eclectic folio.

‘The folk in Dempsey’s portraits are from a largely marginalised group in the history of art. They are the urban poor of the early 19th century, representatives of the most numerous class of this country’s early settlers, both convict and immigrant. They are ancestors of many contemporary Anglo-Celtic Australians,’ said Dr Hansen.

‘While we have been able to identify some of the subjects, I am eager to hear from the people of Australia to assist us in filling in gaps in the information we do have, and possibly identifying some of the unknown subjects. If you are interested in becoming a ‘citizen historian’, the portraits are all on display at the Gallery until October, or can be viewed online through the Gallery’s website.’

If you have a family connection to any of the 52 individuals, let us know by sharing your story on social media and tagging @PortraitAu, or send an email to

Dr David Hansen is Associate Professor at the Centre for Art History and Art Theory at the Australian National University. As well as curating Dempsey’s People, Dr Hansen has authored an accompanying catalogue, which is available for purchase online or at the Gallery’s store.

Dempsey’s People: A folio of British street portraits from 1824-1844 is on display at the Portrait Gallery until 22 October 2017, with tickets available online at or at the information desk. The exhibition includes 51 works from the collection of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and one from the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, New Zealand.