DESPAIR OF THE NOBODIES
Thomas Archbold, fishmonger, Durham t is not often that we enter an exhibition of portraits of people who are completely unknown, who have made no impact on history, have left no evidence that they ever had a thought that was truly their own or performed an action worthy of memory. An exhibition, one might say, of nobodies, except that each of these people obviously was somebody and had their own stories, their own moments of happiness, perhaps even glimpses of success, as well as failure, loss, destitution and bereavement.
Everyone, even the most unfortunate, has experiences of joy, pleasure and carefree enjoyment in their early lives, but we encounter most of these figures long after any such intimations of happiness have faded away. All these men and women are middle-aged or elderly, and most of them are poor, often extremely poor.
The artist who painted them was a littleknown and very minor figure called John Dempsey; so obscure is Dempsey, indeed, that we know little more than the approximate dates of his birth and death (1802/03-77). We know that he flourished, as art historians say, in the 1830s and 40s: that is, the last years of Georgian England and the first decade of the reign of Queen Victoria. And yet we have a vivid sense of the world that he depicted, thanks to the remarkable folio of drawings gifted to the Tasmanian Museum in 1956, here accompanied by David Hansen’s scholarly catalogue, which casts a fascinating light on so many forgotten lives.
Why did Dempsey choose to paint all these people? Most of them were obviously far too poor to pay for their portraits and, in any case, as we can see, the artist retained them for himself. On the other hand he was presumably not wealthy enough to produce such a series of sketches simply for his own amusement. They were not studies for more elaborate compositions, because he does not appear to have painted anything more ambitious; and nor do they seem to be intended for publication, if only because they are so numerous.
Most likely, though, as the exhibition suggests, he collected these portraits of characters that he met in his travels as part of an album that could be shown to clients to demonstrate his proficiency as a painter. So here we have a sample of what must have been the bottom of the British market for portrait painting almost two centuries ago.
At the top, a couple of generations earlier, Joshua Reynolds had retained his famous fulllength portrait of Commodore Keppel striding along a beach in the pose of the Apollo Belvedere, and hung it in the sitting room of his elegantly appointed studio. There, as the great and the good waited for the master to emerge from his painting room to greet them, they could contemplate the masterful likeness, combined with painterly flair and compositional grandeur, that they might expect from his hand.
At the other extreme, in a contrast worthy of a Blackadder episode, we imagine Dempsey’s potential clients thumbing through a volume of the very sketches we see around us in the exhibition. But this, too, leaves us with questions. Even the poorest man or woman able to pay for a portrait, however inexpensive, would be at least lower middle class or working class. with something like a proper job. And yet many of Dempsey’s subjects are in effect beggars. Only a handful of the portraits here, like that of the fishmonger, are unambiguously of individuals capable of paying for their likeness.
What this presumably tells us is that Dempsey’s clients were more impressed by vivid naturalism than by anything else, and that they were not put off by seeing that naturalism exemplified in the figure of a beggar. They evidently subscribed to Oliver Cromwell’s famous preference for a “warts and all” rendering of his own features. Still, the use of portraits of the destitute to demonstrate one’s skill to poor customers remains rather puzzling, because it would have reminded the latter how easy it was to slip from a very modest but still respectable station into indigence in an age without any real form of social security.
There were certain institutions for the very poor, but no one wanted to be rounded up and taken to the workhouse. So, as we see at the beginning of the exhibition, beggars would seek to practise the most minimal forms of commerce to avoid being arrested as vagrants. Match-selling was a prominent example, and here we find a whole series of men and women carrying baskets of the old sulphur-tipped matches — bright yellow patches in the paintings — which could be lit on any slightly rough surface, even on the sole of a boot.
Even more desperately poor people would stand at crossings and sweep the street clean of rubbish and horse manure for ladies and gentlemen on foot, collecting small tips. All of these sweepers are of a certain age, and they have clearly not been doing this all their lives. This is where each of these images conceals a story that we will in most cases never know: they must have been in employment of some kind once — as labourers, factory workers, domestic servants, prostitutes — and it is because they are too old to carry on their original trade that they are reduced to penury.
There are old soldiers too, many demobilised after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, and by now middle-aged. Most of these men were unskilled before they joined the army and they found it hard to get work when they left: an unskilled young man will usually be preferred, even today, to an unskilled older man. Some, as we see here, were crippled or had lost an eye. One, surprisingly, seems to be something of a dandy, still in his dashing
Billy the match man, Liverpool (1844), right; Crossingsweeper, London (undated), centre right; (1826), far right; Little John of Colchester, a poor lunatic (c. 1823), bottom