Unique portraits of poverty: Dempsey’s People

There’s a very charming exhibition on at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra at the moment. It’s something like a latter-day Humans of New York, because the subjects are not the fabulous, fine and famous, but the ‘umble and poor.

Dempsey’s People features water colours of English street people from the first half of the nineteenth century. Anyone familiar with Charles Dickens’ work will know the kinds of people I mean – the street sweeper, the fishmonger, the beadle – even the muffin man. But neither the people nor the paintings are glossy and gentrified; they are presented in their poverty, and it’s very moving.

The genesis of the collection of 52 paintings is interesting – they were found abandoned almost – artist unknown – in 2004 in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, when the archive was being re-located. The process of researching the collection and then funding the exhibition has therefore been long.

What I like about the paintings is that they are light – I am guessing that Dempsey was doing quick studies of the subjects and completing them later on, perhaps at night? No electricity. But their clarity and detail are amazing.

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And the subject matter, of course – this man is a bill poster. We know and see lots of information and portraits of the wealthy, right throughout history. But the poor are either absent or mis-represented, and while this could also be the case here, they do feel real.

They are not brilliant pieces of art, but they give voice to people from this period who really haven’t been seen much – the blind, the disabled (many of the men were returned soldiers from Napoleonic Wars), the mentally ill. There are a few women portrayed in the collection – this woman helps the bathers at the seaside to get dressed.

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I particularly like this one of “Black Charley” in Norwich, apparently a freed slave set up in a shoe-making business.

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And Pember of Bath … and friend.

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This image of the Englishman John Rutherford comes from the collection of the National Library of New Zealand, Wellington and is the only “ring in” painting. Look up his story some time …

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If you are in or visiting Canberra before 22 October, take a look. It’s worthwhile. And if not, check out the images online. There’s lots of information there. They don’t know what will happen to the exhibition after it finishes in Canberra – perhaps back to Tasmania or touring if there is demand.

The copyright of these photographed images rests with the original image copyright holder.

 

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