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Reflections on portraiture

There is an unbroken line of thought in western civilisation extending all the way from Cicero through St. Augustine and Coluccio Salutati right up to the present day, in which we have regularly weighed the significance, respective merits and competing priorities of the “active” versus the “contemplative” life. Can they coexist?

Near the end of her life, facing the gloomy prospect of yet another ministry led by Mr. Gladstone, Queen Victoria confided to her eldest daughter the Empress Frederick, “These are trying moments & [it] seems to me a defect in our much famed Constitution, to have to part with an admirable Gov[ernmen]t. like L[or]d. Salisbury’s for no question of any importance, or any particular reason, [but] merely on account of the number of votes.”

It may seem an odd thing to do at one’s leisure on a beautiful tropical island, but I spent much of my midwinter break a few weeks ago re-reading Bleak House. Partly inspired to do so by Dempsey’s People, I was also on the look-out for portraits because, I now realise, Charles Dickens’s mighty novel is absolutely crammed with them.

Those of you who are active in social media circles may be aware that through the past week I have unleashed a blitz on Facebook and Instagram in connection with our new winter exhibition Dempsey’s People: A Folio of British Street Portraits, 1824−1844 (Thursday 29 June until Sunday 22 October 2017). As the exhibition curator David Hansen points out in his beautiful catalogue essay, it is a sad irony that this lovable artist, John Church Dempsey (1802/03−1877), to whom we owe so much for preserving the mostly humble, certainly fugitive identity of 54 individuals (an unusually large proportion of whom are known and named), should himself remain so shadowy a figure. Much of what we know about him is contained in his surviving portraits, of which a folio of 51 was in 1956 presented by Conrad Docker to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart, and another ended up in the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa in Wellington. This is the first time that they have been shown as a complete set.