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Art History From Below: The Demotic Portraits of a Journeyman Facemaker

Research Lunch – David Hansen

  • 18 May 2018
  • 12:30 – 2:00 pm

In 1996 a folio of 51 watercolour portraits of Regency street people - was discovered in the print room of the Tasmanian Museum, in a drawer of a plan press marked ‘U’ for ‘Unknown’. One was found to be signed - by an itinerant portraitist and silhouettist named John Dempsey. Across the couple of generations prior to the widespread adoption of photography in the 1850s, a small army of artisan painters such as Dempsey supplied an expanding lower middle class market with modest miniature images of themselves and their families.

Scruffily dressed man in top hat with basket

John Dempsey, Town Crier, Bridlington, watercolour. Presented by Mr. C.E. Docker, 1956 Collection: Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery AG556, Dickey,

The Hobart folio was in all likelihood assembled for demonstration purposes; by depicting well-known street people, the most visible ‘remarkable characters’ of each town that he visited, Dempsey could the more easily convince potential clients of his capacity to capture a ‘speaking likeness.’ In addition to their haunting, highly-detailed naturalism, what is special about these works is that almost all are inscribed with a date and place of execution, and more than half bear the name of the sitter. This has permitted research into the lives of these people not as regional or occupational types, but as individual human beings. Between the artist’s intense, searching observation and the biographical and socio-historical facts discovered in the archives, Dempsey’s People brings vividly to life the conditions of the working class in England during the 1820s.

About the speaker

  • Head and shoulders portrait of David Hansen

    David Hansen is an Australian gallery director, curator, critic, and art historian. He is currently Associate Professor at the Centre for Art History and Art Theory, School of Art and Design, Australian National University, and Ross Steele AM Fellow at the State Library of New South Wales. His exhibition publication Dempsey’s People (Canberra: National Portrait Gallery, 2017) won the 2018 William M.B. Berger Prize for British Art History.