Past Events

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.


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

  • David Hansen Head Shot 2

    Dr David Hansen, Associate Professor, Centre for Art History and Art Theory, Australian National University. David Hansen spent 25 years in Australian public galleries, as Director of the Warrnambool Art Gallery, the Riddoch Art Gallery, Mt Gambier, and as Senior Curator of Art at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart. He has initiated, curated and managed some 80 exhibitions and his published catalogues include John Glover and the Colonial Picturesque (2003), The Fifth Australian Sculpture Triennial (1993) and The Face of Australia (1988). After seven years in the private sector, as Senior Researcher and Art Specialist at Sotheby’s Australia, in 2014 he was appointed Associate Professor at the Centre for Art History and Art Theory at the Australian National University. His current projects include a comparative study of colonial portraiture in North America and Australasia, and an examination of images of Australian Aboriginal corroborees.