Skip to main content

Ticketed entry is in place to safely manage your visit so please book ahead. Need to cancel or rejig? Email bookings@npg.gov.au

Menu

The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Celebrity cutpurse

by Grace Carroll, 1 June 2010

Grace Carroll discusses the portrait of the late-eighteenth century gentleman pickpocket George Barrington.

George Barrington, c.1785
George Barrington, c.1785

George Barrington was a notorious gentleman pickpocket in late eighteenth-century England. His life was one of drama from celebrity thief, to convict and, finally, as a member of the New South Wales police. Barrington’s globe-trotting adventures made him a favourite subject for the press and the public of his day.

Portraits of Barrington parallel his image as the ‘prince of pickpockets’. The National Portrait Gallery recently acquired a handcoloured engraving from 1820, a complement to the booklet The Memoirs of George Barrington (1790), which was purchased in 2008 with funds provided by Ross A Field, and William Beechey’s George Barrington (c. 1785), which is generously on loan from the National Library of Australia. Born in Ireland in 1755, Barrington began thieving at just sixteen. A few years later, he was pickpocketing in Dublin, having learnt the tricks of the trade from a group of wandering players. Following the arrest of his accomplice John Price in 1773, Barrington fled to England. There he returned to crime, adopting the identity of a gentleman in London. At gatherings of fashionable society he picked pockets whilst mingling in the crowd. Perhaps most famously, Barrington was arrested and imprisoned for stealing a Russian Count’s snuffbox at Covent Gardens.

Barrington, however, was a cut above the brute thieves of London, as his portraits convey. He gained public sympathy following impressive appearances in the Old Bailey, eloquently defending himself and demonstrating sound knowledge of the law.

Despite his fame, Barrington ultimately shared the fate of ordinary criminals and, in 1790, was sent to New South Wales. In the colony he proved an amiable convict and was commended for good behaviour. Earning the post of Assistant Watchman of Convicts, he later became the Superintendent of Convicts in Toongabbie. Several ‘memoirs’ propagating the myth of Barrington as a gentleman thief were published following his court appearances and transportation. They were loose with facts and almost certainly not written by Barrington. The engraving of Barrington on the frontispiece of The Memoirs of George Barrington shows him picking the pocket of an aristocrat. Dressed as fashionably as his victim, with examples of thieving tools below, the image conveys the mix of crime and sophistication that perpetuated his popularity.

Spending his remaining years alcoholic and purportedly insane, Barrington died in 1804, however, it is the myth of the ‘prince of pickpockets’ which is remembered. Nathan Garvey’s book, The Celebrated George Barrington: a spurious author, the book trade and Botany Bay (2008), raises the issue of the questionable attribution of some portraits of Barrington. The Gallery’s collection comprises diverse portraits of Australians, predominantly of admirable individuals. The inclusion of a dubious figure such as Barrington communicates a broad picture of Australian colonial history. Barrington’s portraits follow the trend of expressing celebrity through imagery, a trend that continues today.

3 portraits

1George Barrington, 1820 John Chapman. 2The Memoirs of George Barrington, 1790 an unknown artist, J. Bird & Simmonds.

Related people

George Barrington

Related information

Portrait 36, June - August 2010

Magazine

This issue features convict portraitists, Janet Dawson, Paul Grabowsky, Nam Le, the Present Tense exhibition and more.

Portrait sketch of Nellie Melba, 1902 Hugh Ramsay
Portrait sketch of Nellie Melba, 1902 Hugh Ramsay
Portrait sketch of Nellie Melba, 1902 Hugh Ramsay

Doodles of the Diva

Magazine article by Dr Sarah Engledow

Three tiny sketches of Dame Nellie Melba in the NPG collection were created by the artist who was to go on to paint the most imposing representation of the singer: Rupert Bunny.

Paul Grabowsky, 2009 Martin Philbey
Paul Grabowsky, 2009 Martin Philbey
Paul Grabowsky, 2009 Martin Philbey

Feel the music

Magazine article by Dr Christopher Chapman

Dr Christopher Chapman discusses the portrait of Australian composer Paul Grabowsky by photographer Martin Philbey.

Lucy, 2001
Lucy, 2001
Lucy, 2001

Technical terminology

Magazine article by Michael Desmond

Michael Desmond introduces some of the ideas behind the exhibition Present Tense: An imagined grammar of portraiture in the digital age.

We would like to thank our partners.
© National Portrait Gallery 2020
King Edward Terrace, Parkes
Canberra, ACT 2600, Australia

Phone +61 2 6102 7000
Fax +61 2 6102 7001
ABN: 54 74 277 1196

The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.