Review / Startled by Dempsey’s immense detail

Arts / “Dempsey’s People”, National Portrait Gallery, June 29 to October 22. Reviewed by ROB KENNEDY

“Thomas Archbold, Durham”, 1826, by John Dempsey… When first raising my magnifying glass to a painting, I was startled by the immense detail.

MAYBE one of the 54 obscure citizens in this fascinating exhibition painted by an equally obscure artist could be somebody’s relative. 

John Dempsey (1802/3-1877) created these works around the 1820s. The small watercolour, gouache and pencil paintings are portraits of British street people. The story of these pictures is in the fine detail. So much so is the detail of these works critical to experiencing them that the gallery offers visitors a magnifying glass as they walk in.

The subjects in these artworks range from fishmongers to perhaps the complete selection of street sellers found in the early seventeenth-century in Brittan. There is also a beggar, a poet, a lunatic and various workers and officials.

When first raising my magnifying glass to a painting, I was startled by the immense detail. The fine loving work in each portrait helps see the subjects up close and feel their lives; whether it’s a dirty or a refined one. Like any street photography seen today, these portraits capture the intimate details of the lives of ordinary people who are set about their daily job.

The visual story that is recorded in these people captured says more than any diary or newspaper of the time ever could. The stories of the subjects can be clearly seen on their faces and through their clothes. They all look like they just stepped out of a Charles Dickens novel.

Almost every person is adorned with either the tools of their trade, a walking stick, the obligatory pipe, of course, a hat, and their goods for sale or barter. Some have their favourite objects with them, and others their handmade goods to sell.

There is no discrimination in the choice of the subject either, people of colour, women and a variety of all sorts. It’s a rich selection of everyday street folk. However, I’m sure some would have seen these artworks as a collection of inferiors and not bothered to have got up close to the art and experience the lives of the people who would have been doing their chores, cleaning the streets and doing the jobs that were forced onto these street workers.

Each one of these people painted would have been at home in a Dickens story. Like the music of the time, depicting the sound of the era, this exhibition closely portrays the street people of this period. And, as it says in the accompanying book “A Folio of Dempsey’s People: 1824-1844”, Dempsey’s people, could have been Dickens’s people.

While the artist John Dempsey is quite unknown, we are lucky to have some of his artworks, so we can peer into the past of what life was like for so many people in earlier times.

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