Portfolio: John Kasmin has collected postcards of beggars from around the world

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"Beggars made good subjects for cards," explains the Bond Street gallerist John Kasmin of the reason these motley sorts adorn myriad postcards he has collected from around the world. "Exaggerated characters or heartstring-pullers, they knew how to pose, how to present the face, the posture of neediness, dereliction, despair – it was their livelihood, this ability."

Kasmin, whose gallery was at the centre of the 1960s art scene and has represented artists from David Hockney to Anthony Caro ever since, believes that these down-and-outs proved so popular on postcards – "sent by the hundreds of millions worldwide, bearing messages between friends and families" – partly because they imply a certain "schadenfreude… We (sender and receiver) celebrate our superiority, poor though we may be."

There is also, however, a technical reason for the prevalence of the panhandler: willing to sit for the long exposures made with plate cameras, they made perfect models; and it is clear from the examples here that there is a dignity in their poses – nowhere more so than in the case of "Marmalade" Emma and Teddy Grimes (bottom far right).

The duo were Colchester's most famous mendicants in the early 20th century, scrounging for all they had – yet, grandly dressed, they have the air of an aristocratic couple on their uppers, their eyes burrowing into the viewer, almost challenging us to give them the respect they feel they deserve.

'Want: Kasmin's Postcards' by John Kasmin is published on 24 September by Royal Academy Publications, and distributed by Thames & Hudson, priced £9.99

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