DE­SPAIR OF THE NOBODIES

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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

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