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Rare Set of Watercolour Paintings on Display for the First Time

15 June 2017

Billy the match man, Liverpool, 1844 by John Dempsey
Billy the match man, Liverpool, 1844 by John Dempsey

A rare and enchanting collection of 52 portraits of British street people will be on display for the first time in the National Portrait Gallery’s winter show, Dempsey’s People: a folio of British street portraits 1824-1844.

Curated by Dr David Hansen, the exhibition will bring together 51 works from Tasmanian Museum and Gallery and one work from the Alexander Turnbull Library at the National Library of New Zealand.

Painted by a little-known itinerant portraitist, John Dempsey, these watercolours were first brought to light by Dr Hansen 20 years ago, when he was Senior Curator at Tasmanian Museum and Gallery.

Fascinated by the works’ combination of unlikely subjects and up-close-and-personal realism, Dr Hansen sees the folio as presenting a significant challenge to conventional views of British portraiture.

‘What is so exciting about this material, about this exhibition, is the way it foregrounds two groups that art history has previously ignored, or at least marginalised: the urban poor of early 19th century Britain, and the non-Academic, provincial journeyman artists of the same period,’ said Dr Hansen.

‘These people’s worlds, and more importantly their names and the stories of their lives, are here revealed for the first time.’

‘The show is also significant in local terms. The subjects of these watercolours represent the period and the most numerous class of this country’s early settlers, both convict and immigrant, the ancestors of many contemporary Anglo-Celtic Australians.’

‘Finally, it’s great fun. Dempsey’s people are as alive and as quirky as any of Charles Dickens’ working-class eccentrics, and the detail with which they are painted really makes them come to life.’

The exhibition will profile the stories of town-criers, match-sellers, chimney-sweeps, street-food vendors, and numerous other characters populating the urban landscape of 19th century Britain.

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 will author the eponymous catalogue available to purchase from July 2017.

Dempsey’s People will be on display from 7 July 2017 until 22 October 2017.


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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal people, the traditional custodians of the land upon which the NPG stands.