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Dempsey's people

A folio of British street portraits 1824–1844

Daily from Thursday 29 June 2017 until Sunday 22 October 2017

This is the first exhibition to showcase the compelling watercolour images of English street people made by the itinerant English painter John Dempsey throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.

Featuring 52 rarely-seen portraits, the exhibition profiles 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. Remarkable in their incisive realism and providing rare visual documentation of people otherwise overlooked by history, Dempsey’s portraits bring to life the fictional worlds of writers like Charles Dickens, presenting a vivid and distinctive survey of street people in British cities and towns. Similarly, the life and work of John Dempsey stands as representative of a substantial but uncelebrated layer of pictorial production in this era, a pre-photographic cultural infrastructure of journeyman oil painters, watercolourists, miniaturists, popular portraitists and cutters and painters of shades.

Curated by guest curator Dr David Hansen, Associate Professor with the Centre for Art History and Art Theory at the ANU, Dempsey’s people is accompanied by a full-colour, scholarly publication.

52 portraits

1Copeman, gardener, Great Yarmouth. 2Billy the match man, Liverpool, 1844. 3Pember of Bath. 4Crossing-sweeper, London. 5‘Whistling Billy’ of York. 6Muffin man. All by John Dempsey.

Related people

Dr David Hansen (curator)

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